Brahms on the Brain at CamPac Too

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
May 16, 2011

Camerata Pacifica placed a sprawling Brahms Quintet in the finale position of the season, for better or worse, Friday at Hahn Hall

Depending on one’s perspective, we’ve been treated to or subjected to a veritable bargain basement of Brahms in Santa Barbara’s classical circuit in the space of a week. The L.A. Philharmonic served up a double dose of the composer at The Granada (framing the exhilarating contemporary sounds of Dutilleux, it should be noted), and the Santa Barbara Symphony seconded the motion a week later in that space, with Brahms’ fourth Symphony to close its season.

In the chamber music sector, and closing a different local music concert season, Camerata Pacifica perpetuated its well-established Brahms-ian program proclivities by capping off the organization’s 21st year with the composer’s Quintet for Piano and String in F Minor, Opus 34.

Brahms’ Quintet was the major work on the menu for Friday’s two performances at Hahn Hall, between the evening show and the more compact?but wonderfully inviting ? lunch concert. (Side note: how we wish other organizations could follow the Camerata’s lunch series lead, and enrich the local classical fan’s options by day).

Opening on a much lighter note, CamPac domo and flutist Adrian Spence was joined by pianist Warren Jones for some agreeable French fluff, by Phillippe Gaubert. His Sonata No. 2 in C for flute and Piano is a lilting bit of post-impressionist writing. The composer was also a flutist, and wrote with an abundant idiomatic sensibility for the instrument, which Mr. Spence handle with care.

Still, the piece came and went, drifting gently by the ears and mind without leaving much of an impression or memory . . . or maybe just a fleeting memory of 13th-hour impressionism (it was written between the World Wars).

Airiness gave way to a brusque romantic thicket come Brahms time, with Mr. Jones now joined by the group’s ever-impressive regulars: violinist Catherine Leonard, cellist Ani Aznavoorian and violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill, amended by semi-regular Agnes Gottschewski on violin.

Somehow, Brahms was never one to think small or write with a light touch. This chamber-sized musical entrée clocks in at a whopping three-quarters of an hour and takes textural advantage of the expanded math of the setting, coaxing big statements from the fivesome of players, often more like a four-plus-one arrangement, of string quartet in dialogue with piano.

A tender idyll at the end of the sprawling first movement was trounced upon by an overheated climax. But the tenderness resumed in the second movement, with its dignified, bittersweet melodic structure, making this the high point of the work. In the Scherzo, a familiar boisterous march theme increases in pace and intensity, as if the steroids are kicking in.

Of course, steroids can make things snappy, in more ways than one—in this case, voilist O’Neill’s string snapped, a rare occasion in classical performances, requiring a break in the musical action. Mr. Jones called on his usual graciousness and wit to ease the pregnant silence in the room. Order was restored and Brahms’ grand little musical escapade was completed, but not without that strange lingering sensation of musicus interruptus.

Come to think of it, there was a time a few years back when a cellist at another Camerata Pacifica concert had to leave the stage during another Brahms event, to fetch a handkerchief to mop his fevered brow. Is there a jinx factor or occupational hazard in performing Brahms? Just a thought.