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Los Angeles Times

Ensembles for the soul
Amateurs come together to find balance, joy and a harmony they've been missing.
By Blair Tindall
Special to The Times

March 25, 2007

EVE and Don Cohen spent last week gearing up for the 20th annual all-day party at their Cheviot Hills home. The preparations meant scheduling more than 80 amateur chamber musicians to play in five rooms Saturday — changing partners every 45 minutes plus grazing on a potluck dinner, sampling wines and watching a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta unfold in the backyard, complete with live orchestra.

"We thought Hindemith — instead of Brahms or Beethoven — would drive them away, but when we scheduled him as the composer a few years back, even more came," says Eve Cohen, who tried composers Bohuslav Martinu and Grazyna Bacewicz this year but cooked for 100 guests nonetheless.

The Cohens are part of the vast underground world of amateur chamber music, whose members meet through friends, at parties and seminars, in community orchestras and on the Internet to share a common passion and a unique social network. Some have switched careers after a disappointing job hunt as pros, while others dust off old instruments as a hobby.

But many plan on music as a satisfying avocation from the start — viewing their musical interests as a way to provide balance to demanding if often lucrative professions.

"The moment I realized I didn't have to major in music in order to play, it was like a blinding light shining down," Eve Cohen says. Now retired, she spent most of her working life in the computer industry while playing violin for pleasure. Husband Don, a computer science researcher, is a cellist.

In fact, professionals from many fields have never turned away from the joy amateur music can provide. Notable amateurs have included Benjamin Franklin (violin, harp, guitar), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (piano), the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas (violin), photographic pioneer Ansel Adams (piano) and former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn (cello).

Despite their enthusiasm, amateurs are an exclusive group. Only 1.8% of Americans play an instrument in their leisure time, according to a 2002 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts. At the same time, though, 82% of the people who don't play instruments wish they did, says the National Assn. of Music Merchants.

The hobby often contrasts with analytical or quantitative workdays. Where professional musicians sometimes weary of entertaining others on weekends and evenings, the occasional player often thrives on the contrast between business and play.

"Chamber music creates an intimacy you might expect between lovers," says Peter Livingston, a laser physicist for Northrop Grumman Corp. who plays cello. "It's a connection much deeper than just talking over a bottle of wine."

One recent Saturday morning, Livingston faced away from the ocean panorama of his Palos Verdes home, shaping a musical phrase as the other members of his Brio Trio listened intently. Although the three men play together like old friends, they have not known one another long.

Pianist Steve Schneider — a construction defect attorney — met Livingston through a friend who's a probation officer, and the two later shared a ride to the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop (www.humboldt.edu/cmw) in Arcata, Calif. Along with the closer San Diego Chamber Music Workshop (www.sdcmw.com), it's one of many seminars dotting the country each summer in which amateurs forge lifelong connections and learn from peers and pros.

"I didn't realize I could do this and be an attorney," said Schneider, a pianist in his childhood who began playing again 11 years ago. "But at Humboldt, there were all these people just like me."

The trio's violinist, Chris Romaine, moved to Southern California last year to work as a securities lawyer for Toyota Motor Corp. Leaving behind a Delaware banking job and a chamber group in nearby Philadelphia, he picked Schneider out of an online directory published by the Amateur Chamber Music Players (www.acmp.net).

With 5,400 members worldwide, that 60-year-old organization serves as a clearinghouse for musicians who grade their abilities and search for playmates when traveling or relocating. The group lists 153 active members in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with an additional 53 in San Diego County.

Through the ACMP, Trio Brio came together. But seeking collaborators online can also resemble Internet dating, where members must rely on others to describe their abilities accurately. The results sometimes backfire.

"Modest people don't have enough moxie to toot their own horn, so they're overlooked," said Schneider. "Then some think they're better than they are. You have to take it on faith."

Hence, although the ACMP's database proves useful for newcomers, many players prefer meeting through personal recommendations, especially from people already immersed in the local chamber scene. The networks are strong in a hobby that often predates career aspirations and continues after retirement.

'Such a joy'

RETIRED Los Angeles attorney Donald Spuehler hadn't even thought of law school when he began playing cello in the 1940s. Growing up on his family's Elgin, Ill., farm, as the inheritor of his father's love of opera, he played in a trio with two of his five siblings before obtaining degrees from Harvard College, the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School, followed by a fellowship to Orleans, France.

"Only Army basic training separated me from my cello," Spuehler said recently as he sat sipping tea in his condo overlooking the Wilshire Country Club, beneath a Leonardo Nierman portrait of him performing. "To be able to play chamber music is such a joy."

As Spuehler knows well, it is also a pleasure that entwines with family life. He met his first wife, Jane, at a soiree soon after his arrival in Los Angeles in 1964 and, until her death in 1998, much of their schedule revolved around playing violin and cello in string quartets. They were in high demand as a team.

But where music filled the Spuehlers' social calendar, for other players it's an enthusiasm that can destroy marriages, devour leisure time and exact handsome costs for paying coaches, scheduling chamber music vacations and buying precious string instruments valued well into the six figures.

"People steal off under the cover of night to avoid making the nonmusical spouse angry," said Schneider, whose wife drew the line at his plans to attend not one, two or three but four summer music festivals.

On the plus side, new couples meet at the festivals, and some workshops even attract families with kids' day camp programs — Johnny can fish for bass while Mom's rehearsing Schubert's "Trout" Quintet.

"I don't have to ration my vacation time to see children and grandchildren," says Margaret Bowles, a flutist who works as assistant head of academics at the Viewpoint School in Calabasas. In the summer, she attends the Lake MacDonald Music Centre (www.cammac.ca) in Quebec, which offers separate programs for toddlers and adolescents.

Bowles also participates in the women-only Tuesday Musicale, which presents monthly concerts at the Pasadena Public Library. The St. Cecilia Chamber Music Society, which meets in private homes throughout Los Angeles, is yet more exclusive, limiting its membership to 30 musicians and presenting private house concerts redolent of Victorian elegance.

Just for the fun of it

QUALITY runs so high that it's sometimes difficult to differentiate amateur from professional in a city such as Los Angeles, where people define themselves in myriad ways. Some combine teaching, coaching and the occasional paying gig with playing for fun in living rooms. Others integrate music with their day jobs.

"I try and find a way to bring music into the classroom whenever I can," says Bowles, who plans to play a recording of Tchaikovsky's "Hamlet" Overture to some Shakespeare students. Barbara Ebert, a pianist who majored in music at UCLA, plays in the amateur Tuesday Musicale but also works as music director of Opera Pasadena; and cellist Judy Cain plays amateur concerts while refining her Baroque viola da gamba technique and working with trios on paid wedding gigs.

"My pay is to do it as well as I can," says Jo Ann Hakonsson, a retired nurse who has performed with New York City Opera but now plays violin for fun. "Music is a challenge to me, and I want to do what the composer intended."

Hakonsson's attitude toward remuneration may surprise the dedicated classical listener who reveres professionals playing at Walt Disney Concert Hall and other major venues. But until 1964, when the New York Philharmonic became the first full-time orchestra in America, most American musicians considered their instruments an occasional treat rather than a career.

"I play cello the way I cook," says Cain, who works in a downtown brokerage house. "When I make a meal, I don't have to be Julia Child — even if I am using her recipe."