Sunday, May 20, 2012

Music in the library

Imagine - a high brick wall covered with creeping fig entirely surrounds the property, which takes up an entire block in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

This neighborhood is one of Los Angeles' oldest, with many of the buildings dating from between 1880 and 1925, It was once the home of LA's wealthiest founding fathers, and after the Supreme Court struck down segregationist covenants, it became the home of LA's wealthy and prominent African American community.

Construction of the 10 freeway cut through the neighborhood, destroying many fine homes, and the neighborhood declined in the '60s and '70s. But today it's coming back as preservationists, USC academics, and others discover neglected beauties among the mix of shabby Craftsman bungalows, pillared mansions, and stucco'd apartment houses. 

But in this block on the north side of West Adams Boulevard, between Gramercy and Cimarron, there's another Los Angeles treasure to discover.

If the gate in the wall is open, you can pull in and park. There before you, beyond a low manicured lawn, lies a graceful red brick building, Italian Renaissance in style.

We were running late, and when we entered the arched doorway, we were greeted by a mysterious cloaked figure, who beckoned us to follow.  We were handed filigreed masks, and directed to hold them to hide our faces. We were ushered into an elegant, wood paneled room. Once we were seated, our escort withdrew, and before us unfolded a scene from a Venetian palace.

This is the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library - home to UCLA's Center for 17th & 18th Century Studies. In collaboration with the Herb Alpert School of Music, Opera UCLA and the UCLA Department of Theatre, we were being treated to a performance of Monteverdi's "Il Combattimente di Tancredi e Clorinda" - first presented in 1624 in the palace of Signor Girolamo Mocenigo.

This was cutting-edge stuff back then - Monteverdi is among the first composers of the new art form called "opera," and the story he had to work with was a fantastic and thrilling epic poem about the First Crusade, full of twists and turns, disguises, cross-dressing, witchcraft and romance and fight scenes. In Monteverdi's short scena, the Christian knight Tancredi fights a battle to the death with Clorinda, a Muslim warrior-princess. In the darkness and fog of battle he fails to recognize the girl he loves, and kills her - but baptizes her as she dies, saving her immortal soul.

Montiverdi invented musical techniques that heightened the thrill of the drama, including the first use of tremelo and pizzicato. The audience in Signor Mocenigo's palazzo must have been as excited as today's fans of alternative music to hear these new sounds.

A blurry picture of the drawing room after the performance
The performance at the Clark was even more suspenseful and thrilling for the audience as the performers clashed their clanging swords mere inches from our noses, and mere inches from the elegant paintings and glass french doors of the magnificent drawing room.

The back lawn
 The action expanded outside to the sunken lawn of the garden, where Tancredi rode mounted on his costumed horse (a guy in a horse mask). As the maiden Clorinda expired, her voice rising to proclaim her soul at peace, the audience burst into applause.

Because the venue is so small, it was a rare and special privilege to attend such an event at the Clark Library. But if you live in Los Angeles, you can attend the series of Chamber Music Concerts at the Clark.

William Andrews Clark, Jr. would have been pleased. The son of a Montana copper baron, the younger Clark was a music lover. He founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1919, and when he built the library in 1926 to house his collection of books, he intended the beautiful drawing room to be used for concerts. When he died in 1934, he bequeathed the property and his collection to UCLA - which was still quite a young university, having opened its Westwood campus in 1929.

Clark named the library after his father, who, unlike his son, was an archetypical fin-de-siecle robber baron. He made his money in mining, railroads and banking, and built an ostentatious mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He bribed Montana state legislators to make him a senator - this corruption resulted in the 17th amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for direct election of U.S. Senators. Writer Mark Twain said of the senior Mr. Clark ""He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag."

The ceiling of the reading room.
 The library was designed by noted architect Robert D. Farquhar, and reflected William Clark's tastes. The small reading room, with its balconies and vaulted ceiling, is lined with bookcases made of copper.  When we saw it, the afternoon sun poured through the gold glass of the bulls-eye windows.

The paintings in the drawing room were done by muralist Allyn Cox, depicting scenes from John Dryden's "All For Love."

The library property deeded to UCLA included Clark's home and an observatory, both of which were torn down in the 1950s. You can read more, and see a great photo of the drawing room at THIS LINK.

If I play my cards right, I might be able to take a tour of the Clark library, and learn more about it. If you visit their website, you can find out how you can, too.

You can also catch the talented young singers from this production performing Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" later this month in the Little Theatre at Macgowan Hall on campus.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

The musician in me is dying of envy of anyone who gets to play in that gorgeous space!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

If I lived in the L.A. area, I'd be begging to be your go-to friend for events like this!