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MUSIC : Breaking Down Barriers : Violinist Yoko Matsuda thinks chamber music is best understood in the informal setting of a living room.

March 05, 1993|SAMUEL GREENGARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Samuel Greengard writes regularly for The Times.

Yoko Matsuda knows that a lot of people have trouble relating to classical music. So, when the world-class violinist--a former member of the legendary Sequoia String Quartet and an instructor at Pomona College--performs, she goes beyond offering big-name musicians. She usually plays the living room of an ordinary home and offers a brief discourse on the music--including the composer's thinking about the piece and what he was trying to achieve.

It's informal and intimate. And for Matsuda, who plays chamber music with her group, Ima Concerts, it's a way to break down the barriers.

"It definitely helps break the ice and develops a connection between the audience and the performer," she said. "It makes it a lot more interesting and enjoyable for everyone. Classical music gets lost in huge concert halls. In an intimate setting, it is a wonderful experience."

In Japanese, the word ima (pronounced ee-ma) means "living room" and "now." And both are concepts Ima embraces in its performances. The Van Nuys-based ensemble performs works of Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Schubert, Haydn and Bach in less-than-formal settings. Its current series includes four performances a year at each of four locations: Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Palos Verdes and Orange County.

But it also offers concerts throughout the Los Angeles area, including performances at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo and the Hermosa Beach Civic Theater. The group's next San Fernando Valley appearance will be Thursday, when Matsuda, pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald and cellist Robert Martin present a free public performance of works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Copland at Valley College. Included will be Beethoven's trio for piano, violin and cello in E-flat, Op. 70, No. 2, and Mozart's Trio No. 4 in C Major.

Since its birth eight years ago, Ima has developed a reputation for showcasing world-class talent. Other than Matsuda, there are no regulars. Other guests have included clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, cellist Daniel Rothmuller, violist Steven Tenenbom and violinist Miwako Watanabe.

Matsuda says that finding top-notch musicians who want to participate isn't difficult. "As a performer you have a lot closer relationship with your audience when you are performing in a small room. They can see your facial expressions and your technique on the instrument and you can see how they are reacting. It's good for everyone."

In fact, Matsuda notes that virtually all of the pieces Ima performs were meant to be played before small audiences in small rooms.

"Fortunately, around Los Angeles there are plenty of very nice homes that have the space to accommodate 50 to 100 people," Matsuda said. "It is more in the tradition of how the composers intended the music to be enjoyed."

Typically, Matsuda greets the audience, offers a brief discussion of the music, and then does a 1 1/2-hour performance with a 15-minute intermission. Afterward, the audience can mingle with the performers over refreshments, or ask questions to gain more insight into particular works.

Jared Diamond, who along with his wife, Marie Cohen, has hosted performances for the last six years in his Bel Air home, sees it as "a very special and uplifting experience. I enjoy seeing the musicians 10 feet away rather than having the performance get lost in huge concert halls."

"It's like a portable chamber group with some of the best musicians in the United States," added Zukovsky, first clarinet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "It's not just a bunch of friends hanging out and playing. Yoko picks some of the best artists from all over the U.S. It's an honor to play with her; there's no better chamber violinist around."

For Matsuda, 50, it's one of the high points of a long and distinguished career. In 1962, she became a founding member of the Sequoia String Quartet, a critically acclaimed ensemble that toured Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States and recorded a dozen records. Then, in 1970, she moved to the United States from her native Japan.

After earning a master's degree in music at Yale University, she landed a teaching position at CalArts in Valencia, where she spent 12 years, becoming head of the string department. She eventually left the Sequoia String Quartet and in 1985 created Ima Concerts. Her goal? To make chamber music truly accessible to those who love it.

Matsuda, who has played violin on the soundtracks of dozens of motion pictures--most recently "Aladdin," "Hoffa" and "Aspen Extreme"--has never looked back. Although she spends much of her time trying to line up corporate and private support for the concert series and handle myriad administrative tasks, she says she thinks it is worth the effort.

"My passion is to do a repertoire that I really love doing," she said. "It's wonderful to play music I really like and with people I really enjoy performing with."

Where and When What: Ima Concerts performance of works of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Copland. Location: Music Recital Hall, Music Building, Los Angeles Valley College, 5800 Fulton Ave., North Hollywood. Hour: 11 a.m. March 11. Price: Free. Information: Ima Concerts can be reached at 5530 Ventura Canyon Ave., Van Nuys. Call (818) 785-7055.

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