SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT
By Charles Donelan
May 17, 2007
If playing classical music in the talent-saturated Southern California market is a high-wire act of sorts, then composing original contemporary classical music for that same market is the ultimate thrill, a little like one of the side activities Camerata Pacifica Artistic Director Adrian Spence enjoys in the off-season—skydiving. On Friday, for the second time in three years, Camerata Pacifica will be premiering a major work commissioned by Montecito philanthropists and music aficionados Luci and Richard Janssen. The piece, a concerto for violin and chamber ensemble by Irish composer Ian Wilson, has been played before in Europe as a full concerto for violin and orchestra. The Janssens, who are great admirers not only of Wilson but also of Camerata Pacifica principal violinist Catherine Leonard, for whom the original concerto was written, heard the piece and wondered if Wilson would be willing to revise it into something that could be played by an extended chamber ensemble. The result will be heard in a special season finale for Camerata Pacifica which will take place in the Music Academy of the West’s larger space, Abravanel Hall.
The collaboration between Wilson and Leonard goes back 10 years to a breakthrough composition of Wilson’s that was written specifically with Leonard in mind. From the Book of Longing, for violin and piano, tells the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert through a tantalizing series of near-references to familiar music. From the opening hints of tango, the piece plays hide-and-seek with the listener, repeatedly flashing brilliance only to slip quietly away into another mode. Wilson has come a long way since 1996, yet his deep connection with Leonard’s playing remains a constant. Like the great 19th-century composers who heard their music as a manifestation of the particular tone and personal qualities of individual artists, Wilson builds many of his compositions around what he can imagine hearing from a favorite musician, and of these muses, Leonard has been the most consistent and the most extravagantly inspiring. Her performance of the original orchestral version of this concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland earned the praise of one Irish Times critic, who wrote, “The performance was one of the most authoritative premieres I have heard in recent times.”
It’s relatively easy to get out to a concert where the music is something you already know. Whether your taste runs to Beethoven or Schönberg, familiarity with the evening’s program allows for a certain peace of mind, and the attendant reflection and anticipation, which make listening to classical music in person so satisfying. But what about genuinely new music—stuff that is not only unfamiliar, but virtually unheard outside of a handful of adventurous concert halls? What can one expect from Wilson’s concerto, known as the Messenger?
It’s a neo-Romantic work, and Wilson is known for his craftsmanship and attention to detail, so be prepared for a lush, carefully orchestrated experience. This is not the kind of new music that plinks and plonks. It will sing, and it will sing in a voice that is recognizably Western and relatively traditional. But there will also be drama. The piece was inspired by some challenging real-life circumstances that Wilson experienced while living with his wife and children in Belgrade in 1999; they had to flee the city because of an illegal NATO bombing. Wilson has said the work is “a testament to fear, anger, and determination,” adding that, while Belgrade may have been the specific instance in his mind at the time, the mood of the piece is also derived from his lifelong status as a native of Ireland. When Wilson reports that the final two movements were written in the “comparative quiet of Northern Ireland,” he is being at once ironic and truthful, and—in a quietly compelling way—indicating the intensity of the suffering he witnessed in Eastern Europe.
The evening’s program will be rounded out by Stravinsky’s Septet—12 minutes of heavenly 20th-century Baroque—and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The combination of Stravinsky and Copland has been tried recently by the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, and it will be interesting to see just how far this interpretation of the familiar Spring will diverge from the chamber orchestra’s recent reading of it. In any case, expect that the joy of “Simple Gifts” will echo through the Music Academy with great feeling and emotional depth at this, one of the most highly anticipated classical musical events of the year.