Chamber music is like the oyster. You develop a taste for it or you distinctly don't. I resisted it for years because on cheap radios it sounded thin and austere, the absolute essence of dull, wet Sundays.
Then on a summer day in the 1950s I listened to the LaSalle String Quartet rehearse in a cottage at Estes Lake, Colo., and I was hooked. (Canned oysters are no way to begin and neither, I see now, is canned chamber music.)
The LaSalle, four young people then not long out of Juilliard and led by Walter Levin, were doing lecture-recitals for children and I heard them several times. By now the group has world stature, particularly esteemed for its devotion to modern work.
Over the decades I've listened to chamber music amid the wrought-iron traceries of the Bradbury Building and within the classic decor of the Clark Library, in basements and living rooms and in concert halls of many sizes. It is an all-terrain sound.
Now I can say I have listened to chamber music in the oval, pink-walled dining room at Perino's. The house that Alex Perino built on Wilshire had been dark for two years before it reopened 18 months ago under new Italian ownership.
Diners' memories are short, especially in a city that seems to disclose an elegant new eatery every evening. By way of reintroduction, Carlo Bondanelli, Perino's president and himself a chamber music lover, arranged with Henri Temianka of the California Chamber Symphony Society to present a series of four dinner-concerts on Sunday nights when the restaurant is customarily dark.
It was Temianka's thought--he is a man equally devoted to bad puns and fine music--to link the meal and the selections. The first pre-dinner recital featured Schubert's "Trout" quintet and the entree was, inevitably, trout amandine. Sunday night one of the offerings was the Haydn quartet known informally as "The Birds" for some swooping and chirpy passages in the fourth movement. The entree was squab.
For the last of the evenings on Dec. 13, one of the selections will be Erik Satie's "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear," with pears Belle Helene for dessert.
It is an unabashedly elitist presentation of what is viewed as the most elitist form of serious music. (Actually, it is also the most democratic form of serious music, because it is of a size that can be and is played by friendly amateurs at home for the sheer pleasure of it.)
Temianka denies the exclusivity of chamber music, arguing for example that Bach himself performed in a Leipzig tavern every Friday night. But the seatings (not available at the door) are $75, which includes a champagne reception before the concert and does discourage the halfhearted.
The room's acoustics proved to be excellent, dry and clear. The lighting was another matter and the players (Kathleen Lenski and Roger Wilkie, violins, Brian Dembow, viola, and Stephen Erdody, cello, for the Haydn) worked by the light of a floor lamp Temianka fetched from home.
Elitist or not, the Haydn and then the Mendelssohn D-minor trio (Steven Mayer, piano, with Lenski and Erdody) were, in the virtuosity of the players and the lyricism of the music, stunning to hear.
The performances were a reminder of the persistence of beauty and genius, despite all the odds against them. As great music of any size and style always is, these chamber sounds were exhilarating and restorative.
The food was good too.