It was a beautiful morning of unsettled weather; threatening storm clouds elbowed billowy white ones as I parked on Sunset Boulevard and began to hike up the steep hill on Micheltorena Street. I wanted to experience the walk pianist Frances Mullen took often in the early '40s, laden with groceries.
She and her idealistic husband, Peter Yates, couldn't afford a car. They had spent all their money adding a rooftop music studio to their modest bungalow in Silver Lake. By the time I reached the former Yates house, I was panting, it had begun to rain and an angry dog was chasing me. Life could not have been easy for the couple.
An amateur pianist himself, and miserable in his job as a civil servant at the California Department of Employment, Yates had an insatiable musical appetite. At a time when it was rare to encounter concerts of the most advanced new music, of early music or even of cycles of the Beethoven sonatas and the keyboard music of Bach and Mozart, Yates desperately wanted to hear it all.
Eager as well to jump-start his wife's stalled performing career (and to cajole her into playing the toughest new pieces along with vast swatches of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven), Yates took matters into his own hands. Along with his day job and their raising two young children, he began recruiting other local musicians, ingratiating himself with composers all over town and corresponding with others across the country.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 13, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Concert--The Radical Recapitulations concert by the California EAR Unit will be held Wednesday at 8 p.m., Bing Theatre, L.A. County Museum of Art, rather than Tuesday, as published in Sunday's Calendar.
And on April 23, 1939, the Yateses presented the first public concerts in their roof studio, which had been designed by famed emigre Bauhaus architect Rudolf Schindler with the aim of making listeners feel as if they were inside a piano. There was room for only a small audience and not much space for parking on the hill outside. Box-office receipts provided the only wages for the musicians (tickets were 50 cents). But nothing stopped Yates. That first program was all Bartok, a radical prospect at the time, and 19 people attended.
Yates called the series Evenings on the Roof. Its motto was "The concerts are for the pleasure of the performers and will be played regardless of audience."
It found an audience, nonetheless, quickly outgrowing the rooftop studio (still visible from Micheltorena) and moving to larger venues. In 1954, Yates retired from administering the series, but under two more Los Angeles musical figures, Lawrence Morton (from 1954 to 1971) and composer Dorrance Stalvey (from 1971 to the present), it thrives as the Monday Evening Concerts. As of this month, the Little Series That Could has persevered for 60 years, a fact that will be celebrated in three anniversary events at Monday Evening Concerts' current home, the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
All this music-making has had an incalculable effect on the cultural life of Los Angeles and beyond. It created an interest in both very new and very old music, not only keeping Los Angeles up to date but making it a trendsetter.
The Roof, said the music critic for the Christian Science Monitor in 1947, turned Los Angeles into "the outstanding metropolitan center of chamber music in the United States."
The rapidity with which Evenings on the Roof caught on with the most important composers and musicians in Los Angeles was extraordinary but not surprising. With Europe erupting in war, those most important musicians and composers in Los Angeles happened to be among the world's most important. This list is an often-repeated litany--12-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, violinists Joseph Szigeti and Jascha Heifetz, pianist Arthur Rubinstein and so on. There were other noted emigres who wound up composing or performing for the film studios. All were homesick for the more substantial musical life they had known in Europe. All were hungry for the latest news of music from here and abroad, and Yates brought it to them.
The third roof concert, in June 1939, was all Ives, and it attracted so many people that tall, gawky Otto Klemperer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director, could barely find a corner of a sofa on which to perch. A few years later, in gratitude for Yates' championing of Ives, the composer's wife wrote: "Mr. Ives says that were it 40 years ago he would ride a bronco over the Rockies & shake your hand."
Yates was also an eager partisan of Schoenberg, and for another early program, this one all Schoenberg, he managed to entice the aloof Austrian composer, then living in Brentwood, to spend an evening listening on the roof. And Yates' persuasiveness extended to performers: He drew first-rate musicians from the Philharmonic and the studios, despite the pay.
By all accounts, Yates was a character. The 82-year-old pianist Leonard Stein--who performed in that first all-Schoenberg program and who will perform again Monday--remembers how difficult Yates could be.