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UP FRONT: MUSIC

In the classical aisle

Hilary Hahn arrives with her violin as Amoeba reaches out to classical artists.

January 25, 2007|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

OF the many contrasts on display at Amoeba Music's first foray into live classical music, none was more vivid than the image of three punk rockers -- two with Mohawk haircuts -- strolling down the store's main aisle as world-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn played the cadenza from Paganini's D-major Concerto.

The three young men, wearing cuffed jeans and black leather jackets, noticed the virtuoso, watched for about three seconds and quickly went down a side aisle to peruse new albums from the band the Damned.

Officially, Tuesday night's performance celebrated the release of the non-classical CD "Grand Forks" by Tom Brosseau, which features Hahn's accompaniment on a number of tracks. But Hahn's fame and reputation -- plus the fact that Amoeba's Hollywood store has never hosted a major classical artist -- made this much more than just another live set by a young singer-songwriter.

With last year's closing of Tower Records, Los Angeles lost its major retail outlet for classical music. Amoeba, with its selection in the back room, now has arguably L.A.'s largest inventory of classical recordings.

Amoeba could run from this niche market -- or embrace it. The store's decision to highlight Hahn on posters and signs and let her play an extended solo set of honest, unamplified 18th and 19th century music suggest that Ameoba may try to support classical CDs at a time when many record labels are downsizing or directing resources to iTunes.

Fans of classical music are not as won over by iTunes as their rock and hip-hop counterparts. Waiting for Hahn and Brosseau to go on, some music students from Cal State Northridge said they regularly make the trek to Amoeba to buy CDs instead of just going online.

Michelle Kim and Bryan Gonzalez, both 20, went to hear Hahn at Walt Disney Concert Hall but came Tuesday out of curiosity.

Despite the promise of a star letting her hair down, Hahn performed as she always does, albeit in jeans rather than an evening gown. Hahn played modestly and without theatrics. After opening with the Paganini cadenza, she performed the chaconne from Bach's D-minor Partita.

Despite noise from shoppers, cash registers and phones, Bach's melody not only held the ears of those who had come to hear Hahn, it also grabbed the ears of the punk rockers.

After picking up a few albums and a "Clerks 2" DVD, they could be seen listening to the chaconne. The three, it turned out, are musicians themselves -- part of a group called the Astounding Roy Gorbisons. Matt Finkle, the group's bass player, said he doesn't listen to classical music: "Hilary Hahn. Never heard of her .... It's complicated, very complicated music, but it made me stop and listen."

Much of the audience was, like Finkle, younger than 25, but many were familiar with Hahn's work. More than 50 people lined to up get the 27-year-old violinist's autograph, including Danny Martinez. He had never been to Amoeba but drove from the South Bay for the event. Martinez, 21, plays the violin and studies music at Cerritos College. "I have all her CDs," he said. "She was one of my first idols when I started to play."

A good deal of music students were in the aisles that night, but not every young Hilary Hahn listener is a budding fiddle player. Brian Ramos has been to many of Amoeba's concerts: "I've come here before to hear Blackalicious and the DJ from the Beastie Boys, Mike D." He saw the sign on the marquee outside the store and decided to come. "I have one of her albums," he says, "but it's my first time seeing her -- and for me, it's all about live."

A few members of the audience were older and dressed more for Disney Hall (where Hahn performed Sunday) than a giant record store with Jimi Hendrix and Sex Pistols posters lining the walls. Adrienne and Oscar Mandel drove from Bel-Air. "We had never heard of Amoeba," he said. "We thought it was a concert hall." The Mandels said they usually go to private concerts on the Westside. But, she said, "we read the review [of her Disney performance] and heard about this on the radio and were determined to hear Hilary Hahn."

When they arrived at the huge, bustling Amoeba warehouse, they were surprised. "I thought maybe Amoeba was part of the Capitol Records building," she said. "I was expecting an intimate, recondite studio. This is very, well ... different." He felt that the acoustics were awful and complained there was no place to sit but was surprised by the breadth of classical CDs for sale at Amoeba. "Now that Tower is gone, I'll come back for the CDs," he said, "but not for a concert -- although for a half hour it wasn't so bad."

Indeed, it was better than "not bad." Naturally, you couldn't hear the effects of Hahn's precision playing -- the cavernous space limited the ability to hear the instrument's tone even when the din of the store didn't overwhelm it.

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