More Than a Mere Pittance

BRAVO 54 (Spring 2020)

More Than a Mere Pittance

LA Opera's Assistant Concertmaster is on a mission to brandish the superlative talent of the LA Opera Orchestra.

By Bill Kennedy

They are among the foremost classical musicians in the land.

And yet they are purposefully removed from view.

They play roaring orchestral music, gentle ensembles and occasional solo parts.

But no one can see them. At least, not clearly.

The stage is brilliantly lit and colored with wondrous forms and dazzlingly clothed performers.

Their workplace is black. So is their clothing. The floor is littered with cables jammed together, and the industrial-looking black band that separates them from the glitter above is distinguished only by a dark pipe and the clunky backs of the footlights.

Pittance at the Pasadena Conservatory (Credit: Lizzie Katz)

They are, of course, the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, and they are both celebrated and unknown.

It is the unknown part that inspired their veteran assistant concertmaster, Lisa Sutton, to decide seven years ago to bring the orchestra members to light, performing chamber music for an appreciative public.

“One day I was sitting in the pit and looking around at all these incredible musicians,” says Sutton. “But we're invisible. We can’t even see the audience. I said to myself, ‘I'd love to find a way to showcase these people.’”

Her singular idea was reinforced at a Memorial Day picnic in 2013, when she put forth to her peers the idea of a series of chamber concerts. “They all said it was a great idea.”

Putting a great idea – even a great idea with wide support – into practice is far from a sure thing, but the angels were on Sutton’s side. A friend suggested the Pasadena home of Carol and Warner Henry -- titans of the LA music scene and LA Opera in particular (Carol Henry co-founded the Opera League) -- would be perfect for a concert.

“I called the Henrys,” said Sutton. “I was delighted that Carol picked up the phone and right away knew who I was. I told her what I had in mind and she said she would check with Warner, but that sounded like a fine idea.”

Lisa Sutton, Artistic Director of Pittance (Credit: Justin Fields Photography)

Thus, on March 1, 2014, Pittance Chamber Music was launched in a concert including seven opera orchestra musicians in the Henrys’ living room.

A fan of wordplay, Sutton chose the name “Pittance” for her undertaking, based on the idea of presenting small ensembles from the orchestra pit.

In the years since, Pittance has expanded to include other musicians and singers from the LA Opera Chorus and the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. In January, for example, former Young Artist Liv Redpath joined the group in a program punster Sutton titled “Liv a Little.”

But the heart and soul of the organization consists of the members of the opera orchestra. Principals taking the stage this season include concertmaster Roberto Cani, violinist Ana Landauer, violist Shawn Mann, cellist John Walz and bassist Nathan Farrington. Maestro James Conlon will lead the final concert in June.

The program year includes four concerts, three at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music and the final concert at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School. This amounts to no small undertaking for Sutton who coordinates operations and plans programs, selects venues, writes program notes and seeks grants, with the help of her other two directors: her husband, Sean Sutton, Executive Vice President of Pacific Symphony, and Cynthia Shilkret, a longtime leader in the Greater Los Angeles musical community.

To say the musical selections are eclectic would be an understatement. Just a sampling of the composers represented in the first three concerts: Bach, Brahms, Ginastera, Salonen, Billy Childs and Hank Williams. Oh, and opera composers haven’t been overlooked: Rossini and Donizetti also made the cut.

Pittance in the Pit (Credit: Brenden-John)

Sutton’s own passion to have the orchestra musicians emerge from the pit comes from her own background.

A native of Vancouver who has been playing the violin since age six, she saw her first opera as a 16-year-old in the summer music program in Banff. “It was [Mozart’s] Cosi Fan Tutte,” Sutton says, “and it was an unforgettable experience.”

That connection with both opera and the classical orchestral repertory stayed with Sutton when she was a member of the Houston Symphony, which then was also was the orchestra for Houston Grand Opera.

She subsequently moved to Los Angeles and landed a job with the LA Chamber Orchestra [LACO] which, as in Houston, supported the opera – in the beginning.

In 2003, when the LA Philharmonic moved to the brand new Disney Concert Hall across the street, LA Opera’s season expanded, requiring an orchestra separate from LACO. Only a small group of players joined Sutton and stayed with the opera. “I certainly understand,” says Sutton. "LACO is a featured ensemble – more visible, like the LA Phil."

And, thanks to Lisa Sutton, those who remained are gaining more visibility every year.

More than a mere pittance.

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Pittance Members Left to Right: Ana Landauer, Marisa Sorajja, John Walz, Brian Dembow, Stuart Clark (Credit: Brenden-John)

Cover photo credit: Justin Fields Photography

Author: Thomas Lady

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