A ‘classic’ note, when Arlette Cárdenes commands the stage

IN TUNE—Cellist, conductor and teacher Arlette Cárdenes continues to share her music despite COVID-19 shutdowns. This is a photo of Cárdenes taken at Sorrento Italian Market, where she and student Erin Akamine performed a cello duet in December 2018. (Gary Kohatsu)

Most kids get a thick dose of Disney animation in their formative years. Maybe a few musicals thrown in for good measure.

For Arlette Cárdenes, a professional musician, music teacher and conductor, her start out of the gate was filled with volumes of classical music.

“When we were young, my parents took all of us to the Music Center (circa 1965) to see performances of the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Cárdenes told the News this week in an email exchange. “We were very young and by the second half we all fell asleep, but the bug was planted and my mother being the culprit, herded us towards the string family.”

Cárdenes, who grew up in Culver City during the ‘60s, was the middle of three children born to Andrés Cárdenes, an architect, and Ariene, a medical manager.

Arlette was born in New York, as was her mother. Her brother Andrés (a renowned musician), was born in Havana, Cuba, as was their dad. Youngest sibling, Alys, a medical biller, was born in Los Angeles.

Mom (now 85) played mandolin, and piano at school. Dad, 90, is a huge opera fan and loves classical music in general.

“We heard classical music at home 24/7 and we were immersed in this music since birth, which is probably why both me and my brother became musicians,” Arlette said.

While classmates likely gravitated to the breeziness of surf music or the beat of rock ‘n roll, Arlette found her creative spirit in all branches of classical sound: “symphonic, chamber, ballet and opera,” she said. With a dash of Broadway and some popular music.

The Cárdenes family moved to Culver City in 1960, then purchased a home in 1963, three blocks from El Marino Elementary School. Both parents continue to live in the same residence, Arlette said.

“My parents were very persuasive and planted the seed into our brain that we should pick a string instrument,” Cárdenes confessed. “First, my brother was persuaded to play the violin, and my folks took us to all the violin concerts and recordings played day and night. Thus, he picked the violin and he is now an internationally acclaimed violinist.

“They did the same for me… listened to many recordings and went to many concerts and then I selected the cello. The same for my sister Alys on viola.”

Once the cello become a part of Arlette’s life, she said that her passion was fueled by listening to the recordings of Rostropovich, Du Pré and Christina Walevska, a Los Angeles native.

The siblings attended El Marino School and were introduced to music by Raye Cottington (now Mulholland).

“We actually played in a full orchestra — strings, winds, brass and percussion — in the 3rd grade,” Cárdenes said. “All instruments were taught and were covered by all the students.”

The El Marino student musicians performed several orchestra concerts, district orchestra and all the musicals that were presented by the drama department.

With so much “quality” music and training as part of their daily regimen, it was only a matter of time before the Cárdenes children formed a trio.

“The three of us are about 2½ years apart, and we all started learning our instruments between 8-10 years of age,” Arlette said.  “We played several string trios a few times.”

And then, eventually turning pro…

“My brother knew he would be a concert violinist at the age of 12,” Cárdenes said. “I was a late bloomer and I knew around 17 and my sister played up until she was 18. My sister enjoyed the medical field and thus did not pursue the viola.” 

Arlette has dedicated her life to music. She recalls the inspiration drawn from her idols. In some cases, the heartache of great potential unrealized.

“I actually saw Rostropovich in person at a recital at the Music Center in 1974. I was blown away!” she said. “I also had an opportunity to see Jacqueline Du Pré around 1977, but sadly she cancelled due to her diagnosis and severe decline from Multiple Sclerosis. Her career was halted at the age of 29.”

Too often, parents discourage their children from pursing a life in the arts. But in the Cárdenes family, the parents saw music as their children’s destiny.

“My parents were very proud of both my brother and I for taking music seriously and moving forward to becoming professional musicians,” Arlette said. “My mother was the enforcer who made sure we practiced one hour every day, and then more hours as we were getting better. Both my parents went to every rehearsal and every concert no matter how small or large.”

Not only did the Cárdenes parents give blessings to their two young musicians, they backed them in every way.

“One very vivid memory is when my parents found The Meremblum California Junior Symphony, which was founded by Peter Meremblum,” Arlette recalled. “There were three orchestras: Pathfinder (for age 9 to 15), Pioneer (15 to 18) and Junior Symphony (18 to 24).  My brother auditioned first and he automatically entered Pioneer at age 14. I auditioned a year later and entered Pathfinder and then my sister followed a year after that. The memory was my parents took the entire Saturday starting at 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. since we were in different orchestras and they sat with each of us the entire day. Now that is dedication.”

As glorious as she is a cellist, Arlette Cárdenes has also enjoyed immense success as an instructor of music and as a conductor.

Conducting came later in her career, as an extension of what she “could do as a cellist.” She said it was a way to “reinvent herself.” 

“So, after searching for school programs in conducting I knew I simply could not afford a second Master’s Degree in conducting,” Arlette said. “I searched for symposiums, workshops, and private teachers in conducting, so that I could present myself confidently and intellectually as a conductor. I get gratification from all three areas; cello, teaching and conducting, they all give me great joy.”

As a conductor, one of her great privileges was to perform with her brother in 2010.

“(It was an) honor to conduct my brother performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica,” she said. “This was fun and scary at the same time. Here I was conducting a world-renowned violinist, distinguished professor, chamber musician, concert artist, conductor — my brother.”

Other favorites performances include her Cello Mania concerts.

“As a cellist I wanted to promote the cello as a great instrument that is versatile, difficult, jazzy, and gorgeous to listen,” Cárdenes said. “The cellists I work with are from various cultures, but come together as a single voice and it is remarkable sound to behold.”

As a teacher, she has four students who have gone on to college, but continue to perform music in community orchestras.

“One student was specifically selected to attend San Diego State University as a Music Therapy Student. I was thrilled,” Arlette said.

In 1996, Arlette and brother Andrés, with the support family members, founded the Culver City Chamber Orchestra.

“I had returned from Michigan after my graduate work and I was amazed that a large amount of schools had very little or no arts programs,” she said.  

The CCCO, a non-profit 501c3 organization, gave its first concert in September 1997. It was a fundraising concert performed by Andrés. At its peak, the CCCO had 56 musicians, but that number has dwindled to 12. And then, COVID-19 interrupted the Chamber Concerts’ 2020 season.

“It is sad that we lost so much funding and grants,” Arlette said. “But we will try again in 2021 and depending on the pandemic, we will see when we can play together again.”

Cárdenes says she is looking into a special concert in honor of all frontline workers.

“I am attempting to raise funds to present a ‘Hero’s’ Concert to be performed either near City Hall or Close to the Hospital as my idea is to honor ALL the frontliners who have sacrificed themselves and their families to take care of us,” she said. “However, this is costly and funds are very scarce and difficult to obtain, so I am not altogether sure if this concert can go forward. I am hoping that it could.”

A past performer at the MidDay at Grace concerts, Cárdenes and CCCO will return at year’s end, Mary Lou Basaraba, director of music ministry at Grace Church said via email.

“I’m delighted to confirm two upcoming MidDAY At Grace concerts with the CCCO between September and November featuring your brother’s (Andrés Cárdenes) performance of the Beethoven Violin 

Concerto and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony,” Mary Lou Basaraba, founder of the MidDay concerts, said to Arlette. “These concerts will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th Anniversary and what better way than to feature the CCCO (virtually).”