Viola student Born Lau and cello student Natalie Helm give an impromptu… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
It was noontime and the sweet sound of Bach swept across the plaza outside the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles.
Cellist Natalie Helm and violist Born Lau were playing the Prelude to Suite No. 1 when 80 young musicians from O'Melveny Elementary School in San Fernando swarmed around them.
Helm and Lau are Colburn students who are taking part in an unusual stringed instrument loan program that helps prepare college-age musicians for careers with symphonic and chamber orchestras.
More than $1 million worth of cellos, violas, violins and bows owned by the Santa Monica-based Maestro Foundation are lent to those hoping to land jobs as professional performers.
The 27-year-old foundation's work is financed through private chamber music concerts staged at the home of venture capitalist Aaron Mendelsohn, a lifelong fan of classical music.
His residence on 15th Street in Santa Monica has a 1,200-square-foot living room that doubles as a performance hall that can seat 85 when folding chairs are brought in.
On the Colburn School plaza, Helm was playing a $50,000 Marten Cornelissen cello. Tucked under Lau's chin was a $30,000 Helmuth A. Keller viola.
"This has a huge sound," Helm, 24, said of her nearly new cello, crafted by a Northhampton, Mass., violin maker.
"You want an instrument that will project a thousand feet in a hall and still sound good in a living room. You want one that responds quickly for fast passages."
Lau, 22, also had high praise for his viola, which was handmade by a Philadelphia craftsman a year before his birth.
"The great thing about a good instrument is it helps you develop your musical character. It integrates into your personal style," he said.
Helm and Lau are among 56 music students who now use the foundation's stringed instruments and horsehair bows — sticks worth as much as $10,000 each.
Foundation officials say high-quality instruments help students refine their style and showcase their skill when auditioning for symphonies and chamber orchestras.
Those tryouts are extremely competitive, with hundreds applying for openings at prestigious institutions such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"Their blend, their sound — they're being critically listened to by other musicians. It's a difficult period, a tricky time," said Julia Cser, the foundation's executive and artistic director.
Gustavo Herrera, administrator of the instrument loan program, said students are required to maintain their instruments well and insure them.
No instrument has ever been lost, although one student accidentally left his cello behind after using an ATM machine. "It was returned, but it was a close call," Herrera said.
Cser said foundation members pay annual fees to attend chamber music concerts eight times a year at Mendelsohn's home. Sometimes the performing artists are alumni of the instrument loan program.
One of those who have returned to play is violist Richard O'Neill. As a USC student in 1998 he was the first person to borrow an instrument from the foundation. Now 32, he is a touring soloist, a resident artist at Lincoln Center and a member of the UCLA music faculty.
After he returned his viola to Maestro officials, O'Neill temporarily borrowed one from a Samsung foundation. He now owns a 1727 Italian viola. "It was basically like buying a house," he said of its cost.
Lau and Helm acknowledged that they are not looking forward to the day they have to return their borrowed instruments. Neither of them can now afford to buy the expensive instruments that their careers will require.
"Down the road I'll probably be using one from a donor," said Lau, who intends to temporarily upgrade to a better viola he will borrow from the Colburn School's collection. Helm said she will also try to borrow a high-end cello from another foundation or private owner.
Back on the Colburn School's plaza, the O'Melveny Elementary School pupils finished attending a performance by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with their music teacher, Linda Mouradian. She said she deals with a much more basic need for instruments.
"I couldn't take everyone who wanted to be in our music classes — I had to turn away 50," Mouradian said. "I had more kids than I had instruments to give them."
Her students listened transfixed to Helm and Lau as Mouradian shooed them to the bus for the trip back to San Fernando. But before leaving, one little girl scored an autograph from Helm.