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Topics / MUSIC : Some Chopin, Then to the Kitchen for Tea

July 21, 1994|LEILA COBO HANLON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The lobby of the Bel Age Hotel is bustling on a recent weekday night as punk rockers and stylish matrons mingle in the trendy West Hollywood hotel. Those in the mood for fine jazz tend to go to the hotel's restaurant and music room.

But just a few steps away, in the Grand Ballroom, a very different cultural experience is taking place. An audience of 100 or so listens raptly to the strains of Beethoven, performed by the Shanghai String Quartet as part of L'Ermitage Foundation's private concert series.

An unlikely setting for classical music? Not for the growing number of Westsiders who find the commute to the area's big concert halls less than appealing and who long for a more intimate and friendlier setting in which to relax and simply enjoy the music.

In the search for comfortable and accessible concert-going, dozens of organizations have sprouted in the Westside, offering classical concerts in the comfort of private homes, lush gardens, historical settings and posh hotels. At these gatherings, members of the audiences can drink champagne, mingle with the artists and discuss the performances afterward, all without going broke.

Some series showcase world-renowned figures; others feature local artists. Some offer only chamber music, but others concentrate on soloists. Some cater only to members or subscribers, whereas others are open to the public. But they all pride themselves on allowing artists to play for small audiences, the members of which in turn have an opportunity to be closer to the performers.

The common goal of all the various series is, after all, to celebrate music in an intimate setting.

Such intimacy has its rewards, and some series spice their evenings with a little pre- or post-concert socializing, ranging from meeting the artist over coffee and dessert to full-fledged fetes with dancing and champagne.

"It's like being invited to a beautiful party where (flutist James) Galway happens to be playing," says Janet Colburn, referring to her Mozart & Co. series, formerly known as Magic of Mozart.

The Mozart & Co. concerts, usually held once a month, are expensive at $100 apiece and are no doubt the most lavish of the alternative breed of musical soirees, socially speaking. Held in elegant Beverly Hills homes, they place as much emphasis on the food, the dress code and the clientele as on the music. "People have gotten married, and business deals have been made here," said Colburn.

When the series went on a brief hiatus last year, subscribers bemoaned not only the loss of music. "They were the most wonderful parties," said a Beverly Hills doctor who has attended several of the concerts. "The champagne, the food, there was nothing like it."

By contrast, the yearly subscription to L'Ermitage Foundation Performing Arts Series doesn't include champagne or food, but its members get to hear the cream of classical music performers on the eve of their performances in such hallowed halls as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

"With the increased pace of life, this is an oasis," said Don Cohen, a member of L'Ermitage who regularly attends the concerts at the Bel Age Hotel. "This is convenient, eclectic and it's the way to feel like you're in the 18th Century. . . . It's like being in your living room."

L'Ermitage strives to re-create European soirees "where the audience can communicate directly with the artist," according to Earl Cherniak, president of the foundation.

Funds from L'Ermitage, contributed by members, go to children's charities, which is one of the reasons top musicians such as violinist Maxim Vengerov and pianist Andre Watts are willing to perform for free. No matter how big the name, however, a typical concert seats no more than 120 people.

The Ima Concert series, meanwhile, caters to people whose passion is simply listening to chamber music. The series offers concerts for both subscribers and single-ticket holders (prices range from $20 to $30 a ticket) in homes and in public venues such as the Clark Library in the West Adams district. Not coincidentally, ima means "living room" in Japanese.

Concerts at homes are more expensive but are smaller, and the price includes a small reception afterward. Independent of the setting, the music is the same.

"We play only chamber music, because much of the literature was composed to be enjoyed at home with friends," said violinist Yoko Matsuda, who founded the series nine years ago.

There are other similar series, where a stable group of performers, with guest artists, play exclusively chamber music in homes and smaller venues. Musica Hermosa, in Hermosa Beach, under the direction of pianist Dragana Bajalovic, presents "very informal and intimate recitals" at homes that patrons volunteer for the occasion. Bajalovic, however, wants to expand her series to public venues where more people can hear the music.

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