Although the cultural climate in the San Fernando Valley has improved in recent years, classical music lovers in the area have, for the most part, resigned themselves to heading over the hill to satisfy their concert needs. There are a few exceptions, including the Music Guild concert series, which brings high-caliber chamber music to the music-parched Valley several times a year.
Monday night, the Peabody Piano Trio will appear in the third of this season's six concerts at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
The series is becoming a local tradition, which began as an annexation of a larger regional tradition. The Music Guild has for decades presented world class chamber music in the area, centering its season at the Wilshire-Ebell theater in Los Angeles. In 1991, it began an expansionist policy, presenting concerts at Pierce College. Two years later, it added to the schedule a series at Cal State Long Beach.
These days, the guild brings in a group for a weeklong residency, which includes three official concerts, and, in the educational outreach component of the series, short programs at the Cienega Elementary and 10th Street Elementary schools.
When planning the move to Pierce College, director Eugene Golden remembered, "everybody said 'It won't work in the Valley.' In other words, they were saying there aren't enough people interested in culture. I didn't believe that, because the Music Guild has had a lot of subscribers from the Valley."
It didn't take long to gauge the success of the Pierce series.
"The people responded well and it's a nice, intimate hall at Pierce, very good for chamber music."
The Music Guild was launched in 1944 by record store owner and music enthusiast Alfred Leonard, who, as Golden explained, "thought it would be a good way of helping his business while also bringing music to L.A. for people, mostly Europeans, who missed having chamber music."
Several years later, the series was headed by Dorothy Huttenback, who kept it going until a debilitating stroke in 1985. It was then that Golden, an attorney and music promoter, took up the reins.
Now in its 53rd season, the Music Guild holds the distinction of being the longest-running chamber music series in Los Angeles.
"I thought it served a purpose, other than just presenting chamber music," Golden said. "The audience is as important as the groups, in the sense that we need to present chamber music for children and seniors who couldn't otherwise afford to hear it, and also provide opportunities for chamber groups who would otherwise not have a chance to play here."
Of course, vicissitudes rear their heads, however careful the planning. The first group planned for the current season, the Lafayette String Quartet, canceled at the last minute and was replaced by the Alexander String Quartet. That group proved so impressive that Golden immediately engaged it for next season.
Just last week, the Peabody trio reported that pianist Seth Knopp's hand injury will prevent the ensemble from performing the planned Schumann and Dvorak pieces on the program. As alternatives, a Haydn trio and the Ravel duo for cello and violin will be performed.
Golden, ever optimistic, said, "I tend to think that sometimes disappointments can be surprisingly good, because you wind up getting to hear something you might not normally."
The artists appearing in the series are, in terms of notoriety, a rung or two beneath the best-known chamber music artists, but they generally deliver great music. This calls into question the top-heavy fees for certain classical musicians who are part of the star system.
"'There's sometimes a feeling that if you're not getting the groups who command $15,000, you're not getting the top people," said Golden. "That's not true. We get groups who are equal to or sometimes better than the best-known groups."
If the Music Guild has fought the good fight of bringing good chamber music to the Los Angeles area, the musical agenda itself has remained fairly safe. Listeners don't flock to the series to hear recent developments in music. Theirs is primarily a conservative, pre-modern programming agenda.
"I think the same principles apply as what my father taught me when I was a kid in Texas," said Golden. "He had a shirt in his store and I said, 'Why do you have that shirt? I don't like it.' He said, 'That's what my customers want. I give them the shirt they want.'
"So when somebody says, 'Why don't you do [contemporary Russian composer] Schnittke?' It might be a good thing to do, but my audience would be very unhappy . . . The basic concept is that you give them quality, but you also have to give them what they're going to enjoy, what they're paying money to hear, instead of doing something that you know they're going to hate."
Peabody Piano Trio, Monday at 8 p.m. at Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. Tickets are $22 general, $17 for seniors and $7 for students; 275-9040.