Gary McLaughlin was thinking about that famous Saul Steinberg map, from the cover of The New Yorker, with Manhattan depicted as the center of the world and everything west of the Hudson River as Siberia. Something about it bothered him, especially since McLaughlin, raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, has been working for years with the Russian River Chamber Music Society as a performer, teacher and artistic director—work that has put him in contact with a wealth of California composers and performers. Why, he thought to himself, should the East Coast get all the credit?
McLaughlin's subsequent experiment—looking up the Chamber Music America database of working chamber music quartets by state—provided some unscientific yet satisfying results. "In California, I came up with 15 quartets," he says, sitting in the window of a Healdsburg cafe, looking out onto the downtown Plaza, "but only 14 in New York. And I asked myself the question: 'Is it really all happening in New York? Or does it just appear that way?'"
The RRCMS' legendary free concert seasons, helmed by McLaughlin, a chamber music instructor at the SRJC and a member of the Glendeven String Quartet, have over the past 16 years adhered to no set theme other than world-class excellence. But in his upcoming season, McLaughlin's goal is far more audacious: to put California back on the map. "Made in California," the theme for his 2008&–2009 season, will present composers and performers from his home state in every program; some will even feature instruments crafted in California.
Ultimately, McLaughlin is committed to reversing the reputation of California, in juxtaposition to the East Coast, as an area of frivolous cultural activity.
McLaughlin, a violinist himself, notes that classical composition in California at one time, in the late 1960s, might have been construed to be in an avant-garde, experimental box of its own design. "Academia was very into Schoenberg," he says, "and it was very intellectual, to hell with the audience. It reigned for a while." But now, he adds, there's more diversity than ever. "It's an incredible time for composition in music. Composers don't feel any barriers, they aren't toeing any kind of stylistic line. The best ones are just doing what they do."
Of special note to McLaughlin, who in his Los Angeles days once played under the direction of Spellbound composer Miklós Rósza, are the numerous film composers from California, many of whom moved from Eastern Europe and found what work they could with the studios. Part of the Made in California kickoff program with the Los Angeles&–based Rossetti Quartet, on Sept. 5, will feature a chamber work by Bernard Herrmann, well-known as Alfred Hitchcock's right-hand man in Hollywood.
Herrmann won't make it to the performance—he died in 1975. But other living composers, such as Jonathan Berger, will be attending certain RRCMS performances throughout the season. McLaughlin's still trying to figure out a way to convince Terry Riley, the famed minimalist composer currently living in the Bay Area, to appear at the season finale of the Alexander Quartet's performance of Riley's "Mythic Birds Waltz."
The Made in California season is already making waves in concept alone. But perhaps the biggest victory for McLaughlin, outside of the music itself, is the opportunity to continue presenting renowned ensembles in what seems like an absolutely impossible way—for free. Last season, he was especially proud to present Grammy-winning, new-music sextet Eighth Blackbird the day after they'd performed in San Francisco for $40. The RRCMS show in Healdsburg, of course, was free.
"It counters that old elitist image of chamber music," McLaughlin says of the free admission policy. "It makes it so it's not just for wealthy people or snooty people. With the economy going the way it is, it becomes even more attractive. We have wine and food receptions after every concert, and the artists come, and people can actually talk to the artists—and that's all free, too! So, it's a cheap date. No tickets, free wine. What's not to like?"
The Rossetti String Quartet perform pieces by Beethoven, Mozart, Piazzolla and Herrmann on Friday, Sept. 5, at the Healdsburg Community Church, 1100 University Ave., Healdsburg. 7pm. Free. Reception follows. 707.524.8700.