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In tune with the times?

As the Coleman series begins its 100th year, pressures on chamber groups grow.

November 23, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

There was music in Pasadena before Alice Coleman presented her first chamber music program 100 years ago in a bank building on the corner of Raymond Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.

Minstrel shows came to town. Church choirs performed. Locals formed amateur singing societies. Down the road a ways, there even was a fledgling Los Angeles Symphony.

But serious chamber music began only when Coleman, who grew up in the city of the roses, decided that it had to be there. An accomplished pianist trained in Boston and Europe, she persuaded bemused city leaders, who knew nothing about chamber music, that it would be good for the community. She even corralled them into underwriting the concerts and guaranteeing the musicians' fees.

What Coleman was championing were string quartets, wind ensembles and other small groups, usually all-instrumental. Their standard repertory ranged from quartets by Mozart and Haydn to Schubert's "Trout" Quintet (string quartet plus piano) to Mendelssohn's Octet (two opposing string quartets) and beyond -- in short, some of the most beloved pieces in all classical music.

Little did Coleman know, however, that she was establishing what would become the oldest independent chamber music presenter in the country. Its nearest chronological cousin is the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, modeled on the Coleman and a frequent presenter of the same groups. But the New York organization was founded 20 years later.

Older than both is the University Musical Society, now in its 125th season. The UMS is not an independent outfit, though. It's linked to the University of Michigan and presents a wider range of programs -- recitals, orchestra concerts, dance, opera, jazz ensembles and plays -- than just chamber music events.

The Coleman will open its season today in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, with subscribers at a 25-year high of about 740. But the leader of the pack also faces new challenges.

"The whole environment has changed so dramatically culturally," says Kathy Freedland, executive director of the Coleman Chamber Music Assn. "There is such a wealth of different cultural experiences for people to choose from, Coleman now has challenges it didn't have back then."

Those include problems facing all serious music organizations, large and small: graying audiences, declining funding sources and competition from other recreational choices. Even audience support at its home base leaves much to be desired.

"Caltech students get free tickets," says the Coleman's president, Robert Winter. "But it hasn't been hopeful. There's a terribly small audience. It worries me that the young people are not getting into it."

"For kids, serious music is not out there in the background," says MaryAnn Bonino, founding artistic director of L.A.'s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series and its sponsor organization, the Da Camera Society.

"Kids grow up on Britney Spears and rap. It takes them a while to come around. The good news is that people are starting to pay attention. The really good news is, when we get them later on, they stay."

Clementina Fleshler, executive director of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, isn't so bothered by the age issue.

"I've played in the Buffalo Philharmonic for 44 years, and I've been doing this for about 20," Fleshler says. "When I started, people said, 'What are we going to do? The audience has gray hairs.'

"Well, the audience today has gray hairs. People come to classical music in their mid-40s. The people who started listening 20 years ago have gray hairs now. But we just had a concert and we practically had to beat them away. That's chamber music."

One reason that chamber recitals typically draw smaller audiences than orchestra concerts may be because the music is more demanding.

"The greatest composers, when they were restricted to writing for a few instruments, came up with their best work," says Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which began co-sponsoring programs in 1992 with the long-lived Laguna Chamber Music Society.

For Corey, the problem isn't lack of audiences. It's the sheer number of groups and the limited venues for them. That's why the Philharmonic Society and its Laguna partner initiated the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival last year. (The second festival will take place April 18-25.)

"The festival was a chance to do something with this emerging young talent," Corey says. "The number and quality of tapes we had to choose from this year, it's amazing. It's almost a crime."

Some of those emerging groups have come out of the annual Coleman Chamber Music Competition, established in the mid-1940s as the second of the organization's three arms (the third is an outreach program for San Gabriel Valley schools, started in the early '50s).

"We try to include the winners in our series, which is one reason it's so hard to get into," Freedland says. "I wish we had 50 concerts a year. With six, it's a tough series to break into."

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