The pianist François Chouchan has nothing against contemporary music, but for the first season of the monthly chamber music series Le Salon de Musiques, he and co-artistic director violinist Phillip Levy have filled all eight concerts with masterpieces of the Western classical canon.
“If pieces like Schubert’s String Quintet are considered conservative, then I’m a conservative guy,” Chouchan said, referring to the single hour-long work on the Nov. 21 program.
Works by Mozart and Elgar scheduled for the Dec. 19 and Jan. 16 concerts are also proven masterpieces beloved by audiences — further evidence of conservative programming. But, Chouchan and Levy ask, when was the last time you heard them up close and personal, the way they were meant to be heard?
The series, inspired by Marie Antoinette’s Salon de Musique in 1780 at the Petit Trianon Domain within the opulent Chateau de Versailles, seeks to bring audiences closer to the music and performers, with composers and works discussed before a performance.
The concerts take place the third Sunday of every month at 4 p.m. on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and offer a fine view of the city and hills. There’s a gourmet buffet prepared by Patina and, naturellement, there’s also first-rate French champagne.
According to Levy, Chouchan liked the idea of offering a chamber music series in Los Angeles that completely does away with the formality of the stage. (The Da Camera Society’s estimable Chamber Music in Historic Sites also often dispenses with a stage.)
“We talk about the music, getting the audience interested in the piece with musical examples, where and why the piece was written — anything that adds to the experience of hearing it,” Levy said.
The idea is a throwback to the days when music — both showy and profound — was often performed in salons, where a smaller space intensified the experience of chamber music. Last month, Le Salon’s debut concert attracted 100 people, intimate enough to allow for maximum effect.
“Unless the hall is specifically built for chamber music — the perfect size with a good acoustic — it could be in somebody’s living room,” Levy said.
In fact, Levy added, the space inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is just that — “a big living room.”
Levy will not be among the performers Nov. 21 for Schubert’s String Quintet, but he’s excited about the other musicians — cellists Antonio Lysy and John Walz. “Walz’s recording of Bloch’s ‘Schelomo’ is spectacular,” Levy said. “It’s on par with all the great cellists who have recorded it.”
Among the other Los Angeles musicians scheduled to perform in the series are violinist Sarah Thornblade, in March, and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, who joins Chouchan in May for a two-piano recital of works by Mozart and Rachmaninoff.
Chouchan, 49, was born in Paris and moved to Los Angeles four years ago. His teachers at the Paris Conservatory included pianist Yvonne Loriod, Olivier Messiaen’s wife and muse. But it was cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who gave Chouchan a lasting lesson about why chamber music is so special a collaborative art. “He was really famous, but so simple and so human,” Chouchan recalled. “He was close to people.”
Chouchan said growing up Jewish in France, a country predominantly Catholic, was not easy. “I love my country, but if I would have to go back to France, I would be sad,” he said. “As with most of the European countries now, we have anti-Semitic problems. Being Jewish in Los Angeles is a dream compared with being Jewish in some parts of France.”
The pianist spoke of co-artistic director Levy as musically likeminded. “There’s an extraordinary connection between us,” Chouchan said. “We don’t have to talk about how we need to do something. It’s automatic.”
Levy, who is also 49, is a former first violinist for the Stanford String Quartet. He has lived in Los Angeles for 13 years. Born in Cardiff, Wales, Levy emigrated to Israel with his parents when he was 10.
“It worked to my advantage to go to Israel as a kid,” he said. “I got great teaching, and it was a great place to be. I played the viola in a string quartet in the Israeli army. At the time, it was the only army in the world that could boast not one, but two, string quartets.”
At 15, Levy became the youngest member of the Israel Chamber Orchestra. His mentors include violinists Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. With the latter, he performed Bartók Duos on television for a public concert benefiting the homeless. He has also been a member of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Iona Brown.
Levy, like Chouchan, isn’t concerned about Le Salon’s conservative tastes and, as chamber music is collaborative, he said they are always open to new music.
“We asked the artists which pieces are close to their hearts,” Levy said. “What can you captivate an audience with the most? And these are the programs that came out. Schubert’s String Quintet, for instance, stands as one of the pinnacles of art. It’s an hour long but [is] a lifetime of music.”
For Chouchan, Le Salon’s goal is simple and personal. “I need to be touched by the melody,” he said. “I try to push the melody so that people can feel the deepest part of the music. I would love them to spend two great hours with us discovering the masterpieces of classical music and leave the space having a melody in their heads.”
Le Salon de Musiques, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Fifth Floor, Tickets: $65 per person, www.lesalondemusiques.com or (310) 498-0257.