Sunday Afternoon Escape: Music Without Words

Longtime friends, Jerome Kessler (l) and composer Barry Brisk greet each other and take a
bow after the performance. Photo by Tom Mitchell

When the music has no words, it is the composer who uses the tools of the orchestra to inspire the imagination of the listener. Music evokes emotions and, just as a book or story is full of descriptive words, the combination of expressive notes can translate into a feeling. The imagery created by the music is not always universal among the audience, but wherever it takes you, it is an escape.   

Three Sundays each year, for 37 years, 50 talented musicians of the Topanga Symphony have brought classical music to the Topanga Community Center stage under the direction of Music Director and Conductor Jerome Kessler. More than 100 of these free concerts have provided the audiences with the opportunity to enjoy the thrill of quality classical music performances. Each concert encouraged the listener to allow the music to create images and emotions unique to themselves but also as a commonly shared human experience.  

In the Topanga Symphony’s March 2020 concert, composer Barry Brisk brought to the Topanga stage the premiere of his Cello Concerto, written for and performed by his friend and colleague, Jerome Kessler. This was Brisk’s third piece performed by the Topanga Symphony. 

As a 21st Century composer, Brisk has a unique contemporary signature and brings his own creative one-of-a-kind texture to his compositions.  

The first of two movements is titled “Lyrical.” Notwithstanding (even after being reminded to turn off all cell phones), with the soloist in position and the conductor/composer and orchestra ready to begin, the hush of the room was broken with a familiar sound of a ringtone in the back of the hall. As we all listened to the interruption, Kessler turned to his friend and said with a smile “It’s for you….” When the silence returned, the composer/conductor waved his down beat and the orchestra started with the strings in a heavenly sweet ethereal sound you’d expect to hear in outer space, maybe on another planet somewhere.  

The soloist enters the space as if from a different and completely foreign dimension and universe. The woodwinds enhance the strings as the brass and timpani bring power to the scene. The cello mastery of maestro Kessler along with the contemporary imagination of Brisk creates tension using harmonies that from the star bring the performance deep into the rich well of orchestration. The first movement moves from unexpected dissonance to traditional classical expectations, as Brisk’s interpretation of “lyrical” fills the air. 

The second movement, “Rondo,” begins with fast-moving phrases using non-traditional intervals between notes as the orchestra and soloist race up and down creating dissonance that resolves into an expressive fullness. Brisk adds the element of surprise to his music. He keeps the audience in wonder and expands their definition of classical music by defying expectations. Brisk’s composition allowed Kessler the strength and mastery of his immense talent to shine as evidenced by the well-deserved standing ovation and curtain calls.  

During intermission, on “just another perfect day” in LA, the audience mingled outside among the mountain vistas sipping a cool beverage and eating homemade brownies and cookies. 



Returning to the second half of the concert, it was announced that one of the founders of the Topanga Symphony, Gretel Shanley had passed away. A champion of the international flute community and long-time Topanga resident, Gretel brought a powerfully impressive stature to the orchestra as principal flute and on the Board of Directors for many years. 

The second movement “Adagio” of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D, Op.60 was dedicated to Shanley. It includes a beautiful flute solo exquisitely played by Paulie Davis. The massively difficult symphony filled with power and drama was brought to life by the amazing talents of the Topanga Symphony musicians. 



The end of May is the annual Membership Drive for the “Friends of the Topanga Symphony” and a chance to renew their membership and support for this jewel of the canyon. The donations are not only appreciated but are essential and allow the orchestra to continue providing free concerts of quality classical music to Topanga. 


Please visit for more information, to become a supporter, or to advertise in the next program. 

SAVE THE DATE! The next concert is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. on June 14.   


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