A nice series of personal connections played out on the opening night of Camerata Pacifica’s 30th season. It was an evening in the best traditions of LA new music, with a program of which Lawrence Morton would have been proud. Morton, the Ojai Festival’s first artistic director and a vital force in Southern California’s new music scene in its formative years, felt not just that music should be written to provoke, to draw attention, but to strive to express something about humanity that might cause is to be remembered.
I was lucky enough to have known Morton through the foul haze of Gauloises cigarettes he chain-smoked. The pairing of Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano with Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio would have also confirmed what he believed: feeding himself and the public parallel streams of old and new music. There was another LA connection as well, and another anniversary; the 24 Preludes being on the verge of occupying a unique position in contemporary violin literature confirms the faith of LA music lovers Herbert and Beverly Gelfand who commissioned the work in 1999.
Ironically, its first performance was with the Hamburg Ballet; with the vividly descriptive performance by Paul Huang and Gilles Vonsattel, however, I didn’t need the dancers – but I would have liked to have had the score. After a while, 24 variations running together for more than 50 minutes turns into what the composer had in mind: the creation of a “continuum” across the short pieces, some less than a minute. Paul Huang and Giles Vonsattel accomplished the task by being absolutely focused on making the most beautifully coherent sounds they could out of what Auerbach threw at them on a prelude by prelude basis, casually turning impossible feats of virtuosity into seamless parts of a larger whole.
Vonsattel worked as if he were revealing music out of sound the way Michelangelo revealed figures in stone. He had a wonderful light touch, but one was always aware that he could unleash formidable power at any moment. Huang was precise, decisive, he dealt with the most fiendish high notes literally without batting an eye; even amongst pounding octave runs leading to double stops, he found deep solitude.
Most piano trios belong to the pianist or the cellist. Even in the “Archduke” Beethoven did not quite get the balance right, but not only did Paul Huang pour his heart and soul out for 50 minutes in Auerbach’s demanding tour de force, he came as close as any one violinist can come to competing with the glorious part Beethoven assigned to the cello, and it seemed on Saturday night, to Ani Aznavoorian.
By sheer coincidence, I can only suppose, Aznavoorian recently recorded Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for cello, an entirely separate work written in the same year as the violin set, along with a third set for piano, also entirely separate. Aznavoorian has the kind of technique that’s needed to dominate the conversation with the piano, and the kind of sound that’s needed to blend with the violin part and give it sex appeal. This Aznavoorian did with not one hesitation, not one flirting sigh, not one portamento, but with the soaring love of an open heart, a rich tawny bass, and laser-like intonation.
Together the trio gave a flowing, elegant reading in which the quirky odd phrasings and angular themes of the three fast movements were smoothed out and brought into line with the golden glow of the Andante‘s theme and variations. They also caught that wonderful moment of intimacy just before the beginning of the last movement, just after the last of the glorious variations comes to a surreal close, where Beethoven inserts a wake-up chord like a wink to Rudolf – in the audience, or perhaps at the piano – before launching into the pyrotechnics of the Allegro.