A little windy night music

October 22, 2007

During intermission at the Camerata Pacifica concert Friday night at the Fleischmann Auditorium, the group’s dogged and charming founder/flutist Adrian Spence was noting the attendance for this month’s concerts around Southern California were leaner than usual. He feared the fault was with the wind issue. That is, the resistance some music lovers have with a program where the winds get their day in musical court.

He might be right, and that’s an unfortunate bias. But no matter: The healthy-sized crowd at the Fleischmann seemed duly swayed by what it heard. We were reminded that wind music, too rarely given its due in classical concert programming, can be moving in a distinctive and categorically fresh way.

That said, the wind music this evening took no particular chances, opting instead for a tasteful display of the genteel and comforting. Dvorak’s “Wind Serenade,” the program’s centerpiece and best-known work, came last. Building up to that, though, we heard music marching through history, from classical era composer Franz Krommer, 19th-century romantic Charles Gounod and an agreeably quirky 20th-century token, a trio piece by French composer Charles Koechlin.

As is a common pattern with this group — especially when the naturally verbal bassoonist John Steinmetz is in the house, along with the charismatic Mr. Spence — there was plenty of kindly, informative chatter mixed in with the music. Mr. Spence opened with an interesting lesson in wind sonorities, and later, there was funny bandying banter between Mr. Steinmetz and Mr. Spence, as each playfully scorned the supposed marginality of the other’s instrument.

That casual atmosphere is, of course, part of the secret of this group’s expanding success, as a series popular with both aficionados and listeners who might otherwise avoid classical concerts. Another part of the secret is the generally polished, passionate musicianship, and that very quality is what gave this evening its sheen.

Inspired by Czech folk music, Dvorak’s “Wind Serenade” is scored for an unusual ensemble of a dozen musicians — mostly wind players but also bass and cello. It was tautly played, with a strong sense of ensemble balance and dynamic contouring. The finale worked its way to a climactic ending, but not in any overt way. There aren’t many exclamation points in this piece, but plenty of nicely formed, firmly stated conclusions.

Krommer’s Octet-Partita in B flat is a lovely classical bauble, light in its emotional demands but satisfying on contact. In the final movement, clarinetist Bill Jackson navigated the brisk, animated workout — a splashy moment in an otherwise staid and stately number. A more substantial treatment of the wind ensemble medium came via Gounod’s “Petite Symphonie.”

A different brand surfaced with Koechlin’s Trio for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon in G, Opus 92, circa 1924, nicely played by Mr. Spence, clarinetist Carol McGonnell and Mr. Steinmetz. With its neat construction and easy-going counterpoint, the work keeps up an elegant decorum, but in its harmonic colors and slightly tilted concepts, its 20th-century vintage bubbles up to the urbane surface.

In the final rub, what the latest Camerata Pacifica program might have lacked in substantial emotional content and sturm und drang, it gained in relaxed charm and understated intelligence — not to mention its valuable equal-time proposition for the cause of wind music. The evening’s musical fare was perfectly pleasant and pleasingly near perfection.