Camerata’s strings sing sweetly on Mozart’s serenades

May 26, 2008

As Camerata Pacifica happily reminded us Friday evening, when we heard its season-ending concert at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the blended sonority of violin and viola was music to Mozart’s ear. The great composer readily would have admitted favoring some instruments over others. Among winds, for instance, the clarinet was at the top of his list and the flute at the bottom. His very favorite sonorities came from wedding the soprano and alto strings. You hear this most wonderfully in the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, where these soloists and an orchestra are paired with magical results. The composition, alas, is infrequently played, and played even less often are the two Duos for Violin and Viola, K. 423 and 424.

Camerata musicians on Friday performed the second of these works, and though modest in ambitions, K. 424 is prime. Composed in 1783, between two major symphonies, the “Haffner” and the “Linz” (Nos. 35 and 36), it is related less to these landmark works, and less to Mozart’s string quartets, than it is to casual music like the wind serenades. It’s full of melodies that could only have spilled from Mozart’s pen, and its brilliant figuration is endlessly inventive. There is considerable freedom for each of the voices, yet one part complements the other like a hand fits a glove, and when the instruments join in close collaboration, as in the strict canonic writing in the first movement’s development, you sit up and take notice.

To judge by her Mozart, Catherine Leonard is a very able violinist, but her playing is not complete. Even though the dynamic marking says “piano,” the indication must be tempered by a realization that she’s a soloist and her sound, even though soft, must have substance, must project. Intonation in the upper register also can be dicey. Her partner in the Mozart, violist Richard O’Neill, was formidable. With a rich tone and fine musicality, hearing him was an unalloyed pleasure.

And then there’s the music of Edvard Grieg, whose Cello Sonata was also performed. Grieg’s Sonata is praised for its formal innovations, but it reminds this writer of nothing so much as the work called “A Grand, Grand Overture.” a piece concocted by the English composer Malcolm Arnold for the first of the celebrated Hoffnung Concerts held in London in 1956. The piece is a spoof with tongue firmly in cheek, and its biggest joke is that it just won’t end. It’s all coda, with one climax following another, each louder and more gaudy than the one that came before. As with the Grieg Sonata, you finally surrender to excess.

Here, the performance could not have been better. Cellist Ani Aznavoorian and pianist Warren Jones were, individually and collectively, terrific, and this writer has no doubt they made the best possible case for the piece. Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Opus 47, rounded out the evening.

Let’s talk about concerts in general. Normally, a program announced to start at 8 p.m. will begin at five or even eight minutes past the hour. This seems the industry’s standard operating procedure. On Friday, though the auditorium was virtually full, Camerata Pacifica didn’t dim the lights until 20 minutes after, and when the house went dark it wasn’t the musicians who appeared. It was Camerata’s founder Adrian Spence, who provided a five minute infomercial about the ensemble. We were going to hear “a really hot group of musicians,” he told us.

After the opening piece by Mozart, he put himself back in the spotlight and talked more, while his colleagues were waiting in the wings, ready to perform the next selection. A few words of welcome are fine, but what we got was something else altogether. It would be sadly ironic if the silver tongue Mr. Spence used to build his ensemble ultimately undid his good work.