The Salastina Music Society is breaking down the walls between classical music and skeptical audiences

“I often wonder how many hipsters would come to our concerts if we advertised them as artisanal music-making with 300-year-old handcrafted violins?” jokes Maia Jaspar White about the Salastina Music Society, a chamber music ensemble based in Pasadena. The accomplished Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist and Colburn School instructor co-directs the group with her music partner, fellow violinist Kevin Kumar, who has appeared as a soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic. Their quest is to make chamber music more user-friendly, satisfy their own artistic goals and have fun with fellow musicians playing the music they love.

Kumar and Jaspar White, who also directs Caltech’s chamber music program, have been performing for decades in renowned orchestras/ensembles here and abroad, as well as in the entertainment business; hear them both in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi soundtrack, among countless other motion picture and television projects.

The pair met in the violin section of the now-defunct Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, where they struck up a friendship and shared musical goals. In 2011 they pooled their talents, contacted musician friends and created a program series under the Salastina banner to put the musical genre back into the must-hear category for any music lover. “We put ourselves in the audience’s shoes and then designed our concerts from that perspective,” says Kumar. “We both love playing chamber music. But we saw that the music was always being presented in the same old way. We started Salastina because we thought we had something unique to offer.” The name Salastina is an amalgamation of two names the pair don’t typically use — Kevin’s ancestral name, Salatia, and Maia’s middle name, Kristine.

Indeed, Salastina is breathing new life into a rich musical form that is artistically demanding, musically complex and unflinchingly intimate. Without a conductor to lead, chamber musicians rely heavily on one another during performances, working together and communicating with raised eyebrows, slight nods and an uncanny sixth sense. So often, however, chamber music concerts are straightforward and simple: Artists walk onstage, artists play music, artists leave. Jaspar White and Kumar have turned the conventional chamber music concert into part in-depth conversation, part performance, to offer a deeper and more satisfying musical presentation.

The format is applauded by both newbies and music connoisseurs. “I totally believe in this format; it takes the mysticism out of the experience and we have fun with it,” says KUSC radio host Brian Lauritzen, who has been Salastina’s resident host almost since the group’s formation; he hosts Salastina’s popular Sounds Genius series, which employs the immersive preconcert discussion to analyze the program.

But don’t call it a lecture or didactic examination, says Lauritzen. “We talk history, dissect the musical elements, pick the piece apart and then put it all back together,” he says of the casual talk that remains true to the music and its message. “By the end of the performance, everyone is a bit of an expert.”

“When you take the microscope and approach music from the intellectual, emotional and personal perspective, you create a more compelling context for people to latch onto when they are listening to the complete piece all the way through,” explains Jaspar White. “Any art, especially classical music, is appreciating what human beings are capable of creating. Beethoven was a genius; not everyone can do what Beethoven did, but everyone is capable of knowing a genius when they see or hear it.” Kumar agrees, adding; “At the end of the evening we want people to have made friends with the music, so it’s not just something to admire from afar, but they have had an engaged experience with it.”

While a preshow conversation with a host isn’t totally new to the chamber music landscape, Salastina has, over the years, taken that structure to heart, carefully integrating the format into its own signature style. “Salastina is really the best of the bunch when it comes to chamber music groups, technically and musically,” says Stephen Unwin, a JPL astronomer and self-described classical music junkie, who scours websites and calendars to catch performances whenever he can. “There are a lot of really fine musicians in Los Angeles, so it’s not hard to find professionals playing on any given night somewhere.”

Reaching out to people across the L.A. area, Salastina typically performs at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music’s Barrett Hall and small locations on the Westside. Unwin, who has attended Salastina concerts for the past five years, says he loves the small venues (“I went to one performance that was in a condo that held only 20 people. It was spectacular.”) and the social receptions that take place afterward. “So many times, after a concert, the musicians pack up and go home,” he says. “I enjoy that the musicians stay around to chat; I think they enjoy meeting us as much as we love talking with them, too.”

“Salastina audiences are very thoughtful, interested and always engaging,” says Meridith Crawford, Salastina’s resident violist, who has performed with the group for more than three years. “They love to ask questions and pick our brains. It’s fun for us as musicians when people are curious about the music.”

Seeing the audience react positively is rewarding to Salastina’s musicians and host Lauritzen. One of the group’s recurring Sounds Genius concerts is Mendelssohn’s Octet, written by the 17th-century German when he was only 16 years old. Lauritzen enjoys describing how the young Mendelssohn incorporated bits of well-known works by famous composers from his past into his octet. During the discussion, musicians play quick excerpts to demonstrate. “When the piece is finally played in its entirety and those musical moments come up, I love to see the light bulbs go off in the audience,” says Lauritzen. “I live for seeing these kinds of happy discoveries.”

On Feb. 17, Lauritzen unveils his collaboration with Salastina on Brian’s Playlist: Hope, Faith, Life, Love, a Feb. 17 concert at the Pasadena Conservatory featuring classical selections inspired by the content and structure of a moving E.E. Cummings poem. Salastina also partners with other organizations, musicians and performers for unique musical evenings. In December, the group joined Pasadena’s Red Hen Press in presenting a concert of new music by composer Eric Whitacre set to poetry by California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia and Elise Paschen, performed by soprano Hila Plitmann.  In a quite different vein, comedian/actor Seth Rogen has read Ferdinand the Bull while Salastina performed Jaspar White’s original composition based on the children’s classic in downtown L.A.

Overall, the group’s repertoire is as varied as its program offerings, Sounds Genius notwithstanding. Debuting last year, the Sounds Promising series involves up-and-coming teen musicians who not only sit side-by-side with professionals at rehearsals and concerts, but also learn about the day-to-day business of being a professional musician. “Private lessons and classes improve their skills, but it’s critically important that young people have more exposure to what kinds of career possibilities are in front of them,” says Jaspar.

The Sounds Delicious program is Salastina’s take on the salon tradition where culinary courses are paired with appropriate musical selections, treating audiences to a feast for both ears and taste buds. Recently, Salastina teamed up with Chef Becky Reams under the theme “Beautifully California”; prior to that was “The Music of India’s Cuisine” with Un-Curry, an organic Indian catering company.

Also on the calendar this year are the complete piano trios of Robert and Clara Schumann and the Second Class Citizens program, which examines why some composers, such as Zoltan Kodaly and Fanny Mendelssohn, didn’t get the fame and glory of their contemporaries.

Finally, Salastina embraces modern composers through its Annual Composers of Los Angeles series, which spotlights contemporary classical chamber music that Jaspar White contends is “accessible and listener-friendly.

“This is what also makes us different from other organizations and is the benefit of being a small company,” she says, explaining that larger organizations often feel obliged to champion modern compositions that are cacophonous, atonal and avant-garde. “We don’t think so,” she says, pointing to American Mirror, written for Salastina by L.A.–based composer Derrick Spiva. The group has performed American Mirror twice and made a recording of it this past December; the performance will be part of Salastina’s first podcast episode this month.

Jaspar White is adamant that “listener-friendly” not be considered verboten in classical music, an attitude that corresponds to the overarching mission of Salastina. “Why does listener-friendly mean simplistic and lacking in depth? That it’s not good or intellectual enough?” she says. “Just because you understand something doesn’t mean it’s less sophisticated. Classical music is not just wallpaper. It’s something that we hope people can latch onto and connect with throughout their lives.” 

For a concert schedule and tickets, visit salastina.org.