Evgeny Tonkha at the Mojica Hacienda

A week and a half ago, I was lucky enough to attend a cello concert in a unique setting. I went as the guest of a fellow student in my department who is also an Oxford alumnus; the concert was an Oxford alumni network outing (though not exclusively–most of the people in the audience weren’t Oxford folk). It was held at the Mojica Hacienda, a house on an estate in a lush and secluded neighborhood of Santa Monica, near the mountains and the ocean. The house belonged to tenor-turned-priest José Mojica and was apparently a hangout for the Gershwin brothers, Hollywood stars, and Albert Einstein, among others. The grounds are maze-like, with really lovely gardens: fuchsias and hollyhocks, water lilies in the pond, a wall draped in Thunbergia alata (yes, I had to look that up).

We took a look in the small chapel, which had many small plaques expressing gratitude to the Virgen de Guadalupe or some saint for a miracle or for recovery from an illness or an injury. They had texts in Spanish and painted depictions of whatever had befallen the individual in question (one showed a person being thrown from a horse). The house was filled with tapestries and silver and had a miniature movie theater in addition to the specially built concert room where (we were again reminded) the Gershwins had played. It was an intimate space, reminding me a bit of a Syriac church in Paris where I attended another cello concert years ago.

The concert itself was great. The cellist was Evgeny Tonkha, and he played a variety of short pieces, half of which I’d played myself in some form or another and so was familiar with. The program included the prelude, sarabande, and gigue from Bach’s third suite for unaccompanied cello, the first movement of Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, an arrangement of Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Bartók’s Romanian Dances, a modern composition entitled Intro Version (the composer, Anna Drubich, was at the concert), and finally arrangements of a Gershwin prelude and Rhapsody in Blue. Tonkha’s spiccato was impressive.

The one disappointment was that the program was supposed to include this chaconne by Giuseppe Colombi, supposedly the first piece ever written for cello. I’d never heard of the piece or the composer and was looking forward to hearing it, but for whatever reason Tonkha didn’t play it.

Afterward, there were refreshments in the garden, and my colleague and I met a few other Oxford alumni who were all now also at UCLA. One of them told us a story about his friends who punted to London in their white ties after the Magdalen Ball. It took them three days. Also, it turned out the reason the concert was an Oxford alumni outing at all was because the person in charge of the Mojica Hacienda’s classical music programming had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford (he also bore an uncanny resemblance to Gérard Depardieu).

Anyway, as you read this I may have just arrived in Oxford myself! I’ll be in England through the end of June.

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