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Brahms for Lunch

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
May 18, 2009

For the final lunch concert of its current season Friday at Hahn Hall, the Camerata Pacifica menu was all about Brahms, including the yawningly, nearly hour-long Piano Quartet in A, Opus 26. At the risk of over-extending the gastronomic theme, Brahms is a fairly regular part of the Camerata’s programming diet, especially this past season, during which the group surveyed all the composer’s Piano Quartets.

Though well- and wisely played — particularly on the part of the sure-handed and sure-minded pianist Warren Jones — one also had the feeling that enough was enough. A little Brahms can go a long way. Conversely, a lot can go a little.

From another angle, though, the directness of the format had its own charms. While variety is naturally expected in the fuller evening programs (Friday night’s concert also included works from Beethoven and obscure British composer Rebecca Clarke), there is something clarifying in hearing one long work, with one applause opportunity, for four musicians — each impressive, as individuals and ensemble players.

Sympathetic chamber playing, in fact, becomes one advantage of Camerata Pacifica’s structure, with a fairly consistent roster of players each season. Musicians assembled for this afternoon’s program — Mr. Jones, violinist Catherine Leonard, violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Ani Aznavoorian — have the advantage of regular intra-exposure on Southern California stages.

Mr. Jones makes fewer regular appearances than the younger string players, but has a familiar and respected presence as a kind of honorary Santa Barbaran through his annual summer role at the Music Academy of the West. While the piano is the main protagonist in this Brahms score, ample attention also goes to the other musicians in the mix. At various points, canons and other interweaving parts in the music make for an entwining, conversational atmosphere between “soloist” and the string players, and these players on this stage made the all-important connections with and within the music.

While Brahms carefully modulates the emotional heat in this Quartet, more than in other works in the form, surges of Romantic fever are never far away. In the Poco Adagio, the violin applies a mute in the opening and closing of the piece, which retains relatively tranquil spirit but swells with Brahmsian ardor in its mid-section. The Finale opens in robust, red-blooded fashion but also trafficks in subtler, more circumspect musical thoughts.

With the passing of another season in Camerata Pacifica’s history, the organization continues to boldly go forward. With concerts in Santa Barbara, Ventura and parts of Los Angeles (including a free concert Wednesday at Our Lady of the Angeles Cathedral in L.A.), the group that flutist Adrian Spence built has become a kind of model of self-determining energy and resourcefulness, not to mention high artistic ideals in an economically clenched climate.