Friday, February 21, 2014

Amateurs, Play On! (January 30, 1977, Washington Post Show Section)

One Saturday night not long ago while the big political fish were off spawning, Ditte Kaufman threw open her cozy Capitol townhouse and let the Trout run. The musical soiree began quietly enough - a Haydn Quartet and Bach Cantata- and then Norman Irvine lugged a double bass the size of Kate Smith through the front door.

With the quick eyes of a musician on the trail of a quintet, Irvine cased the instrument cases in the hall. He saw the trappings of a violin, viola, and cello, heard the piano and without further ado fished out the music of Schubert’s Quintet in A Major, Opus 114, a.k.a. (since it attempts so many slippery and fishy with the tune of a Schubert song of the same name) the Trout.

Word that the Trout was loose rippled through the dozen musicians and soon four amateurs volunteered to set out with Irvine to catch it. Lawrence Wallace, a deputy solicitor general of the United States, manned the violin, Marty Plotkin, a computer programmer, tuned his viola. Steve Flanders, a political scientist, steadied his cello and discussed tempo with Louise Lee, a church organist, who was poised at the piano.

Irvine, a professional musician who has played for the National Symphony, welcomed the amateurs. The quintet had never played together, but after a deep breath, they took off in allegro vivace -- and then some.

From the first bite of the violin, the wine-sipping crowd of 20 arrayed on couches and the living room floor knew they weren’t rooting for either Isaac Stern or Izaak Walton. Still, they were wise enough to know that to appreciate The Good, one must be acquainted with The Not So Good.

At the end of the first movement the crowd let out a shout. Marty Plotkin shook his shoulder-length hair with a “Wow!” The deputy solicitor murmured about “some approximations” but looked as pleased as Hamilton Berger before Perry Mason begins the case for the defense. A few of the weak-hearted fled to the dining room, and the spread of wine and snacks on the table there.


So the musicale is alive and … well, alive. The evidence is apparent in Kaufman’s Capitol Hill living room, in Constance Holden’s apartment off Columbia Road, and in the Old World charm of Heidi Wiencke-Lutz’s Kensington home.

A directory called Amateur Chamber Music Players lists only 30 people in the Washington area who want to get in touch with others to join them in music making. But few in the know believe that is the limit of the Have Instrument, Will Travel crowd here. Amateur players seek out rumors as they find them (are there really 150 secret string quartets in the State Department alone?), quietly lure friends to their pianos, and introduce themselves without warning to anyone seen carrying a violin case.

Lew Lipnick, contrabassonist for the National Symphony, was enlisted at the tender age of 13 into the musicales his family doctor used to have.

“There must be one musicale a week out in Silver Spring and Chevy Chase,” Lipnick says. “Per capita, Washington probably has more than New York, and maybe as many as the San Francisco area. There must be at least a thousand amateur musicians here, and good ones, too.”

Meanwhile, harpsichordist Reilly Lewis has begun signing up musicians, music lovers, and hosts who’ve always wanted to organize a party around a couple of string quartets, into a program called Musical Offering, Inc. (3439 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Va., 22201). The musicians rate themselves, tho potential hosts let their needs be known, and the appropriate match-ups are made.


Kaufman, a native of the Netherlands, is a free-lance translator. Like her former husband - psychiatrist Harold Kaufman, owner of Harold’s Rogue and Jar - she has been on the Washington music scene for many years. Five years ago she began inviting people over to play chamber music.

"I’ll phone about 10 musicians, half amateurs and half members of the National Symphony or players in the armed service bands. And then I’ll phone about 20 people who like to listen to music. The musicians will bring along other musicians, and people will bring friends. I try to keep the number of people to under 50.”

She likes things to be spontaneous. “Maybe I’ll ask one person to play something special or invite a poet to read, but most of the time the musicians bring the music and see what’s available and then play what they want.”

Some nights she’s like a general marshaling the troops.

“Once we had guitars playing in the hall, a string quartet in the living room, recorders in the dining room and madrigal singers outside. People are always coming and going and sometimes we don’t stop until 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Kaufman’s genius is collecting people as varied as the prints and paintings or her wall. Some of the musicians and guests (students, professionals, neighbors) seems at one with the 18th century prints she has on the wall behind her piano. Others have the splash-dash flair of her Hundertwasser posters and paintings. She’s no Contessa of Capitol Hill holding wakes for the Old World. Che Guervara posters paper the bathroom.


Constance Holden, a writer for Science magazine, has a passion to play the piano. Every few months she invites eight to 10 musicians to her apartment just off Columbia Road.

“I never invite another pianist, so I get to play all the time. Sometimes we get people playing in every room of the apartment. We can make quite a racket. I love it. And I invite a few people over who just listen. People are pathetically grateful to listen to any live music.”

Holden’s music room is just big enough to accommodate one quintet after the Trout, but any listener who took umbrage at the performance at her first musicale of the season could move a few feet over to her living room and listen to madrigal singers and recorders.

Bob Greene, a tennis instructor and clarinet player, has been going to Kaufman’s and Holden’s events since they began. He also recalls wild one night stands.

“Ah, the Bach and Beer Society -- That was about four years ago. A friend of mine took me to a gathering at a house near the Cathedral. I haven’t heard anything about the Bach and Beer Society since, though. In many ways the chamber music scene is much like pick-up basketball games.”

Reilly Lewis hopes his organization will do to chamber music what recreation leagues did to pick-up basketball games.

“It’s a nonprofit referral service for musicians, a total-resource operation,” says Lewis, who after being a student of Nadia Boulanger’s in Paris can hardly be expected to settle quietly in his job as music director of Clarendon Methodist Church. “Any musicians, amateur or professional, can fill out a form, rate themselves and then Musical Offering can help them get in touch with other musicians. And the professional musicians are eager to participate. Some National Symphony members are starving to play chamber music. And people who aren’t musicians can arrange to just listen. We can have musicales like Ditte Kaufman’s all over the area, even in the remotest suburbs!”


After the Trout ended and musicians and audience filed into Ditte Kaufman’s dining room full of snacks, some musicians were eager to talk about Lewis’s plan but others seemed to prefer romance over organization. “There’s a woman named Heide Weincke-Lutz who has musicales,” Mike Donaldson, who had just sung a Bach cantata, related with a smile. “Furtwangler and Kirsten Flagstad used to come by for evenings at her parents house in Germany. She’s trying to keep the tradition going.”

Indeed, a jovial Heide Weincke-Lutz does try to keep the tradition going in Kensington. But although she is “very, very happy” when she can get 10 or 12 good musicians in her house, she admits that it doesn’t really harken back to her days in Schwarz-Sonderhausen, a town of 10,000 with a concert hall and an opera house “that put the Ring on every three years.”

Her family had the best guest room in town and a good piano. Where else was Flagstad to stay and warm up when she came to sing for the Schwarz-Sondershauseners?

That romance is ashes now. Weincke-Lutz can’t remember if it was the Russians or Americans who bombed the old opera house into ruins.


By 11 o’clock, the stars had arrived at Kaufman’s. Reilly Lewis was officiating at the piano. Members of the National Symphony Orchestra were trickling in fresh from Rostropovich and Shostakovich.

Soon an eager amateur charged into the dining room: “Oh you missed a wonderful piece! We have to get a recording of Hummel’s Septet!”

Kaufman thinks one of the most exciting things about her gatherings is the chance it gives amateurs to play with professionals. “The professionals are so good about playing with them.”

“After playing Shostakovich I’m really too tired to play anything here,” said the Symphony’s trumpet. John DeWitt, ’but I always have such a good time at Ditte’s. I didn’t want to miss coming. I’m really glad I’m here. I couldn’t think of a better place to come to, after what happened.”

On his way over, DeWitt endured one of the brief discordancies of civilization. Two kids mugged him, busted his eyeglasses, cut his forehead and stole his wallet, which had $60 in it. But he still had his trumpet, and they didn’t cut his lip.

During the Fourth Brandenburg the police interviewed DeWitt quietly.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” sighed Kaufman.

Ironically, the mugging seemed to improve the music. The surrounding world of violence that had so rudely intruded inspired the musicians and listeners. Each note, each harmony, seemed welcome evidence that civilization still existed.

Lew Lipnick played a solo composed for him by a friend. An hour earlier he had been pacing the hall angered at what had happened to his colleague DeWitt.

Then Norman Irvine steadied his double-bass in front of the 20 or so people who remained at 1 in the morning. The diffident, soft spoken man -- “if you don’t get enough wine in you, you don’t do this sort of thing” -- launched boldly into a Bach Suite “for unaccompanied cello with accompanist,” he said, waving to Reilly Lewis at the piano. “I need him to cover up my mistakes.”

Irvine played a sonata for bass by Henry Eccles.

“Who is Eccles?” somebody called out.

But sitting on the floor a few feet from the double-bass, Eccles slapped the back like an old friend.

Then Bill Patterson of IBM and Bob Kraft of the National Symphony played a recorder sonata with keyboard accompaniment,

“When in doubt, trill,” laughed Kraft after one movement.

But Lewis covered his mistakes, his piano a lively, graceful understatement that brought a tear of joy after the Trout, the mugging, the Hummel and the Eccles.

Music lovers of Washington, quit the solitude of your lonely rooms.

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