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A House of Harmony : Santa Monica Music Lover Builds a Home Around a Concert Hall

January 23, 1991|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aaron Mendelsohn built it. Justin Blasdale brought it down.

We're talking about the house in Santa Monica where Mendelsohn lives and Blasdale plays.

Mendelsohn is a classical music fan who has turned his house into a 100-seat concert hall where performances are staged by an unusual home-grown arts foundation.

Blasdale is a San Francisco Bay Area pianist who received a standing ovation after performing there the other night as part of the foundation's current concert series.

The house is built around the 1,200-square-foot hall. It has a spot-lit stage, soundproofed walls and 25-foot-high ceilings that have been carefully engineered to enhance the gentle strains of flutes, harps, oboes and Liszt etudes.

Mendelsohn admits to having first-night jitters five months ago when carpenters and plasterers moved out and his family and their $60,000 Bosendorfer grand piano moved in.

The first home concert, featuring works by Mozart and Chopin, was scheduled in six days. But would the sound quality be right? Would the artists come to play? Would music lovers come to listen?

"It was like the movie 'Field of Dreams,' " said the 39-year-old stockbroker-lawyer who studied musical literature in college. "It was a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. I figured, 'If you build it, they will come.' "

It helps, of course, that Mendelsohn has formed the Maestro Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports young musicians. Through the 5-year-old foundation, he quickly recruited artists to perform in his concert hall--and audiences to fill it.

Contributions by foundation members pay honorariums to musicians involved in the current 10-concert series. Any surplus is being donated to struggling local music students. The performers say they are grateful for the pay because cutbacks have put a dent in the college concert circuit where many have worked in the past.

The $1-million house replaced a 1927 bungalow where Mendelsohn had lived for 10 years. He and his wife and two children spent 18 months in a rented place as designers wrestled over details of the new house.

Acoustical engineers called for rounded walls and specially recessed windows to soften the echoes they feared would reverberate through the huge music room. Structural engineers demanded special reinforcing--including industrial-type steel beams over the 50-foot-deep hall. They struggled to squeeze oversized heating ducts into walls to muffle the whooshing sound that comes from most home furnaces.

"My wife cried when she walked in and saw the 'cottage-cheese' stuff that they sprayed on part of the ceiling," Mendelsohn said. "But we needed it for the acoustics. And she indulges me."

Leah Mendelsohn, his wife of 19 years, acknowledged that her favorite music is rock 'n' roll oldies, not ancient oldies. "Classical music is Aaron's passion," she said.

Violinists, flutists and other musicians are surprised when they step into the 15th Street dwelling for the first time. So are concert-goers, who find the hall empty except for rows of white folding chairs.

"Playing in private homes can be the nicest way of making music--or it can be the most unpleasant," said Blasdale, 44.

Sometimes living rooms are so crowded that "people are breathing around your neck," he said. Other times, the host provides a poor-quality piano or musicians find themselves relegated to cocktail-party, background-music status.

Not so at Mendelsohn's home concerts.

The house lights flickered to signal the 80 invited guests to take their seats when Blasdale's performance was to begin. Then they dimmed and the stage lights focused on him as he sat down to play pieces by Beethoven, Corigliano, Brahms and Schumann.

"This is the way chamber music is meant to be heard," whispered Becky Rodman of Pacific Palisades. "This is a step back in time."

Said Joachim Bolck of Rolling Hills Estates: "It couldn't sound any better than this in a concert hall."

David Gottlieb of Topanga Canyon compared the acoustic qualities of the house to those of Lincoln Center--after New Yorkers "improved it by putting in the baffles."

Dodge Crockett of Santa Barbara remembered visiting the old Mendelsohn house. He marveled at how the new home's bedrooms and other living areas have been fitted in above and below the recital hall.

"The kitchen used to be over there where the chairs are," Crockett said, pointing across the room. "This is very imaginative. There's not a bad seat in this house."

Nearby homeowner Alan Levin praised the concerts: "It's marvelous . . . it's nice to live in a neighborhood like this."

Nonetheless, the 18 windows that line the back of the semi-circular stage and look out on 15th Street are double-paned.

For the neighbors, Mendelsohn's concerts are to be seen. Not heard.

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