Thursday, March 22, 2007


Every year I go bananas over the wisteria that blooms in the spring at Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Caltech is a small college of only a little over 2000 students but it is well-endowed and the campus is beautiful. For years, My husband and I have had tickets to the Coleman Chamber Music series of concerts that are played in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus. We would often get there early in order to walk around the campus and admire the gardens. When I think that the wisteria that graces the walls of several buildings might be in bloom, I bring my camera along to take pictures. Thanks to digital photography, I can take as many pictures as I like, trying to capture the essence of the blooms in their clouds of purple.

This past Sunday's concert, when these photos were taken, featured the Takacs String Quartet playing three of my all-time favorite quartets—two by Beethoven, the "Harp" and Opus 131, and one by Shostakovich, No. 11. In fact, Opus 131 is my most favorite of all quartets, and I was gratified to read in the program notes that it was Beethoven's favorite as well.

It was a fantastic performance—"magical" is the word that Mark Swed used in his LA Times critique. Mr. Swed thought that the Takacs had a wiry tone and complained about the acoustics of the auditorium. Too bad he wasn't sitting up in the balcony with me. The sound was rich and warm up there and very present.

Beckman was built to accommodate lectures and carries the spoken voice quite well, which means that for music it is too dry. And because of its circular shape (like a circus tent), the sound bounces around strangely. Our first seats were on the floor and along the side. You could barely hear what was going on down there. It took years of experimenting and requesting seat changes before my husband and I discovered the very best acoustics were in the center of the balcony. The sound comes right up at you there. And the sight lines are very good, too. It looks like poor Mr. Swed had front row seats for Sunday's concert which can be a drawback in any hall. As the lady sitting behind me commented, "You can hear them breathe," when you are that close.


  1. It sounds like such a lovely concert. We heard the Takacs last year, playing the Beethoven Opus 131, and a Shostakovich quartet, but not the #11. I have an ongoing conversation with my brother about the Takacs: He sees it as a very austere and modern quartet, and loves their preformances of Shostakovich and I agree that they can be very austere and reserved, but also very rich and warm in their playing as well -- especially in Beethoven. When playing Shostakovich, I find they masterfully combine the right amount of "remove" with the warm fuzzy human touch that also occurs in Shostakovich. They are neither too severe, nor too overdone in their approach to the folk music and more maudlin aspects of the music.

    It is interesting how music can sound so different in different parts of a hall. We go regularly to Avery Fisher Hall and I distinctly do not like the sound of the orchestra in the Orchestra section or first balcony. But in the center front of the Third Balcony, the sound is wonderful, rich and warm and you can hear all the instruments beautifully.

  2. I totally agree with your comments about the Takacs and their interpretation of Shostakovich. I have two complete sets of the Shostakovich quartets, one on LP by the Fitzwilliam, and the other, a more recent set of CDs by the Manhattan. (1991 is recent compared to 1976.) I have to say that I liked what the Takacs did with No. 11 much better.