Salon Music

Once a month since last November, as many as 200 people have crowded into the atelier of celebrated Russian-American artist Alexey Steele to share wine and vodka, potluck comestibles, and an eclectic feast of world-class chamber music.

At 8:30 pm on Monday evening, June 9, the next of these “underground” concerts reverberates amid dozens of monumental canvasses and works in progress in Steele’s vast studio in Carson, 10 minutes south of LAX.

Cofounder and music coordinator of the Music at the Grand Atelier series, cellist Maksim Velichkin has assembled an A-List of Russian emigre regulars, including LA Phil violinist David Chernyavsky, and LA Phil cellist Serge Oskostsky. Relocating to the US from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Velichkin has worked with such luminaries as James Levine, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Joshua Bell, and Bobby McFerrin. Also an accomplished concert pianist and harpsichordist, Velichkin frequently accompanies soloists in the concerts.

FineArtsLA asked Alexey Steele about the genesis of the unusual series.

AS: Members of the core group are working musicians, artists, writers, thinkers — all close friends of many years. The idea for the concerts came during one of our annual, not-entirely-sober get-togethers. It was very late, and we’d been engaged in somber conversation, when Maksim — a truly gifted cellist — sat at the piano and played the entire Bach St. Matthew Passion. When he finished, he said, “Let’s do something.” I replied, “No – let’s do SOMETHING!”

FALA: How does a salon like this happen in Los Angeles?

AS: LA is the Paris of the 21st century — a cultural frontier of the world. Our subversive little classical underground is purely and indigenously an LA phenomenon. Because LA has no imposing structure of its own, it’s the ultimate artist’s town. The building blocks of 21st century art are being laid right here, right now.

FALA: What makes these concerts so unusual, so different from other chamber music in the area?

AS: A formal concert showcases the end-results of artistic work, rather than the creative process itself. My studio is more a state of mind than an actual location, so performing and relating to music here are entirely different. Maksim puts together a wonderful mix of repertoire — from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart to Shostakovich to new pieces by working composers. Also, the line between audience and performers doesn’t exist here, as the musicians trade places continuously. After the actual concert ends, then comes the real jewel — a classical jam session after midnight, sometimes until 4 am. The musicians play what they want, the way they want it. They experiment, they try new things.

FALA: What else goes on here?

AS: All sorts of things happen spontaneously. One time, my good friend John Callas of JPL — who heads the team behind the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars — gave an extraordinary talk. Those of us infected with a childhood space bug had a rare opportunity to see our own man-made tracks in the dust of the Martian landscape through 100 megapixel eyes, narrated with insights from one of the leading minds in the field.

FALA: Tell us about your current projects.

AS: As ever, I have several new works on my easels right now. I’m tweaking the study for my long-in-the-making Out of Chaos project, exploring common roots of all three monotheistic faiths and the self-destructive absurdity of mutually exclusive perceptions. I just finished a series of plein-air paintings documenting the arson devastation of the Irvine land preserve, and the land’s remarkable comeback. Of course, I continue painting nudes – beauty at its purest and most exhilarating.

FALA: Any shows or exhibits coming up?

AS: I’m finishing my first official commission for a permanent museum collection – Quiet Steps of Approaching Thunder, symbolizing nature and human consciousness combined – for its official unveiling at Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard this fall. I’m part of a group exhibition – The Artist’s Private World – at ALFA gallery in Pasadena June 14-July 26. My exhibition at Michael Zchoche Gallery opens soon. And, after 8 years of ‘not-getting-to-it,’ my website is yet-another work-in-progress.

The June 9 concert is free of charge. Guests are asked to contribute food or beverages, and bring a folding chair. Information: 310-808-9947.

The photo accompanying this article is by Michael Darter.

— Penny Orloff

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