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Camerata Pacifica: Performance Panache

Casa Magazine
By Daniel Kepl
September 28, 2012

The world premiere of Huang Ruo’s In Other Words: Concerto for Viola and Chamber Ensemble, a work of shamanic ritual, raw, even shocking outbursts, and fragile beauty, launched Camerata Pacifica’s 2012-2013 season, at the Music Academy of the West last Saturday in an exhilaration of vigor and artistic purpose.

Hahn Hall was jammed with the usual patrons and Camerata camp followers, but there were also gaggles of fresh faces in the house: a good sign. Frank and Ann Everts, long-time Camerata patrons, were ready to hear Mr. Ruo’s new concerto, commissioned to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and your scribe was looking forward to hearing a program of four works, of which three were unknown – a treat.

During the post-concert quiet while waiting my turn to exit the Academy grounds, I realized the significance of the evening’s experience. An ensemble of world-class classical musicians had convincingly led the audience through a challenging concert of mostly high-caloric contemporary music, and nobody had left during intermission. Moreover, the ensemble had premiered a new concerto that will undoubtedly transform the genre.

And in typical Camerata Pacifica style, making sure everybody left happy, the second half of the program had been devoted entirely to one large chestnut, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, in a supercharged performance that reminded any remaining doubters that this ensemble is top drawer. It doesn’t get better than this, anywhere.

Artistic Director Adrian Spence constructs each of his Camerata Pacifica concerts with great care and much thought. Saturday’s program was no exception, as Spence the programmatic chef de cuisine, nuanced an illuminating sonic menu. The first half of the
program began with Henri Tomasi’s Cinq Danses Profanes et Sacrées, followed by an icebreaker, Luciano Berio’s silly serious Opus Number Zoo, and finally, Mr. Ruo’s extraordinary Viola Concerto, a work of cathartic intensity for musicians and audience, alike.

The music of Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) though clearly of the 20th century is also lyrical in the manner of the Corsican-French composer’s teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, among them Vincent d’Indy.

Composed around 1961 each of the five dances, played by a wind quintet of flute (Adrian Spence), oboe (Nicholas Daniel), clarinet (José Franch-Ballester), bassoon (John Steinmetz) and horn (Michael Thornton) featured a particular member of the quintet as protagonist/soloist.

The moody ensemble imagery of Danse egreste paired nicely with Michael Thornton’s splendidly emphatic horn expostulations in Dance profane. José Franch-Ballester, whose mastery of the clarinet is both a marvel to see, and butterscotch to the aural palate, gave Danse nuptiale its poignant elegance. Danse guerrière found the wind quintet
in impeccably spirited technical flourish, cascades of high register bassoon riffs punctuated by outbursts from the other members of the ensemble, culminating in a jazz glissando from clarinetist Franch-Ballester that gave exclamation new meaning, and likely lifted a couple of hairpieces. Fabulous!

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) has always been a bit of an odd duck. His Opus Number Zoo (1951/1970) a play for children, with spoken musings on barn dances, fawns, grey mice and tomcats, is lighthearted and playful, without the slightest condescension.

Childfriendly, but also clever texts bandied playfully between each of the five wind players, in deliciously coy recitations. Of the five musicians, Mr. Spence handily won the declamation medal, offering his lines with unctuous delight and clarity of enunciation, especially the “beastly fight” depicted in the last piece, Tom Cats.

Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo is just 36, but his aesthetic is of ancient vintage. His new work, In Other Words: Concerto for Viola and Chamber Ensemble, which received its world premiere at the concert, was commissioned by patrons Frank and Ann Everts for their 50th wedding anniversary, and was composed specifically for the extraordinary violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music faculty member, and Camerata principal.

The concerto is an astonishingly shocking, incredibly moving, and ultimately liberating work, and announces a new template in the concerto idiom: a paradigm change in the way composers will treat the solo concerto, henceforth.

Performed with unnerving virtuosity and touching humility by O’Neill, with a support ensemble consisting of Camerata’s five wind players, plus violinists Catherine Leonard and Agnes Gottschewski, violist Robert Brophy, Ani Aznavoorian on cello, Tim Eckert bass, and the amazing percussionist Ji Hye Jung, In Other Words conflates two worlds: the world of raw human angst, and the surreal realm of expectation and quietude. The imagery of the piece, at least for this listener, was equal parts Edvard Munch (The Scream) and The Buddha.

Keeping to the standard three-movement concerto form was the tail that wagged this feral work. O’Neill, positioned in the center of a semicircle of colleagues, acted out literally, the title’s cipher – chanting in variously pitched monosyllables while improvising free form as well as ritualized body movement, and at the same time playing the composer’s incredibly difficult and complex solo viola lines: speaking-in-other-words.

Ruo’s profound understanding of the emotive power of percussion coloration, his fascinating exploitation of the otherworldly sonic capabilities of instruments, and his purpose-driven theatrical devices (Asian bamboo fans used at peak moments for powerful musical and visual effect) together with a comprehensive and deliberate manipulation of audience mood through lighting design and ensemble placement shifts, morphed In Other Words to the realm of visual, aural, and psychic theatre.

After an intermission designed to give the audience opportunity to exhale, Beethoven’s solidly tonal and delightfully folkloric Septet in Eflat Major, Op. 20 was delivered with typically spirited and revelatory Camerata Pacifica panache. A touch of added excitement: multiple cameras were in the hall, taping for later broadcast on Los Angeles based public television KCET.