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USC Thornton musicians find a home away from home

Composer and his wife remodel their house to create an intimate performance venue for chamber musicians, including many Trojans

Mason home concert
Pianist Brendan White performs the music of Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Bach at one of the Mason Home Concerts. (Photo/Todd Mason)

For the past two years, a growing number of USC Thornton School of Music students and alumni have found an unexpected musical haven in a Westside Los Angeles home.

The space belongs to composer Todd Mason, who, together with his wife, remodeled their house to create an intimate performance venue for chamber musicians and audiences. The residence now hosts a regular performance series, called Mason Home Concerts, which welcomes USC Thornton artists.

“My wife and I were always big music lovers,” Mason said. “We kept noticing that many people experience great chamber music but often only from a great distance, in fairly big halls. We decided to create a place to share the beauty of classical chamber music more in the way it was originally intended, in an intimate setting.”

Mason’s project continues a vital Los Angeles tradition of chamber music concerts in private residences, from the seminal “Evenings on the Roof” concerts of the 1940s through the Da Camera Society’s performances in iconic historical homes, a series founded by Thornton Board of Councilors vice chair MaryAnn Bonino. What sets the Mason Home Concerts apart is their extraordinary intimacy, with an audience capacity of around 50, and their emphasis on USC Thornton musicians.

Getting to know them

Although he studied at Juilliard, Mason’s first composition teacher was Marienne Uszler, longtime professor of piano pedagogy at USC Thornton. But it wasn’t until he premiered one of his own compositions with the Argus Quartet, which includes Jason Issokson MM ’10, Clara Kim DMA ’15 and Diana Wade ’13, that Mason became acquainted with the USC Thornton community.

Since the series first launched in 2015, Mason has hosted concerts featuring the Argus Quartet, horn player Allen Fogle, composer and faculty member Sean Friar, cellists Coleman Itzkoff MM ’16 and Michael Kaufman DMA ’14, violinist Philip Marten, pianist and DMA candidate Alin Melik-Adamyan ’12, MM ’14, composer Daniel Silliman ’15 and pianist Brendan White, among many others.

Mason’s friendship with clarinetist and GCRT candidate Benjamin Mitchell, founder of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, has blossomed into an ongoing collaboration with the thriving ensemble, which Mason helps to support and promote.

It seemed a natural fit to feature these young players, many of whom are already starting to play with our leading orchestras and getting top prizes.

Todd Mason

“We always wanted to have a place to encourage young talent of exceptional quality and I have been continually impressed by the level of professionalism of the Thornton alumni and students,” Mason said. “It seemed a natural fit to feature these young players, many of whom are already starting to play with our leading orchestras and getting top prizes.”

In addition to the traditional chamber repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms, Mason regularly programs new music and even world premieres. His intimate, acoustically treated venue boasts a concert grand piano and appreciative audiences.

“People feel that they are actually part of the music and the performers sense the audience’s reactions, too, which can create a wonderful kind of energy,” Mason said.

Performances worth remembering

Reflecting on some of the series’ most memorable performances, Mason recalled a concert by the Amicus Trio, which includes cellist Itzkoff, violinist Marten and pianist Melik-Adamyan.

“They played an all-Mendelssohn program that was truly amazing, uplifting and energizing, and people are still mentioning it to me,” Mason said. Amicus will return to the series in January with a Russian and Armenian program featuring guest violinist Melody Chang MM ’13.

Other 2017 concerts will feature the Argus Quartet and the SAKURA cello quintet, which formed at USC Thornton.

For Mason, supporting young and emerging musicians has been the most rewarding aspect of the project.

“My audience loves to get to know these musicians and to experience their wonderful musicianship and help encourage their careers and ambitions,” he said. “I think for the performers, this series offers a great opportunity to see how audiences react to their material and spoken comments, and to experience this intimate setting in a real concert environment.”

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