Camerata Pacifica at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

By James Donelan
February 14, 2008

The South Coast’s most adventurous chamber group, Camerata Pacifica, broke a cardinal rule of programming on Friday night, and we were fortunate that they did. They gave a concert of nearly all 20th-century music—a piece by Schumann being the only exception—and made no apologies or explanations. The performances spoke for themselves, in clear, beautiful tones.

Richard O’Neill began the program with a bold work: Krystof Penderecki’s Cadenza for Solo Viola. Penderecki is best known for his Threnody in Memory of Victims of Hiroshima (1960), a moving, sorrowful piece for 52 strings; this much later and far less devastating cadenza nevertheless has great power. O’Neill brought out the full range of thematic possibilities inherent in the dissonant interval of the minor second, ending with a haunting diminuendo. Afterward, Carol McGonnell, clarinet, and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano, joined O’Neill for Robert Schumann’s enigmatic and redundantly titled Märchenerzählungen, or “Fairy-tale Stories,” Opus 132. The work does tell stories—of elves, giants, heroes, and princesses—but it can be hard to tell which ones at any given moment. The trio had a lot of fun with it while still exploring some intriguing musical material.

Immediately afterward, the same trio performed György Kurtág’s Hommage à Robert Schumann, Op. 15d (1990), the Romanian composer’s very funny tribute to the work just heard. It sounded as if the fairy-tale characters had escaped from the book and were running amok onstage. It includes hilariously cryptic titles, such as “Kappellmeister Johannes Kreisler’s Curious Pirouettes,” a reference to a series of novels by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and “I was a cloud, now the sun is already shining … ” None of the titles make much sense, but these little works were a pleasure to hear, ending with an inexplicable bang on a bass drum.

The rest of the concert belonged mainly to the strings. Nurit Pacht and Catherine Leonard, violins, performed Alfred Schnittke’s curious Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich, in which one violinist performs in front of a curtain, and another performs behind it. The effect was to create an odd sense of both presence and absence as the two violin lines intertwined through the visual barrier. The evening finished with Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, thrillingly rendered by Pacht and Fitz-Gerald, and Kodály’s Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 12, which Pacht, Leonard, and O’Neill ripped through with astonishing swiftness and spirit. The 20th century may be gone, but it’s still very much alive in music.