Catherine Leonard, Camerata Pacifica

By Andrew Johnstone
May 2, 2008

Induce a dozen and more high-ranking soloists to take time out of their busy global schedules to give chamber-music concerts in California, and you have the miracle of modern artistic organisation that is Camerata Pacifica.

Three of its members happen to be Irish: clarinettist Carol McGonnell, principal violinist Catherine Leonard, and principal flautist and founding artistic director Adrian Spence. So too is the ensemble’s associate composer, Ian Wilson. Though Camerata Pacifica is now in its 19th season, this is its first international tour, taking in the wider US, Ireland and England.

Wednesday’s appearance at the National Concert Hall had also been billed as a Composer’s Choice concert for Wilson. Yet, owing not least to the forcible idealism of Spence’s programme notes and spoken introductions, it took on wider proportions.

It was a celebration of 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement, it was the fulfilment of lofty mission statements, and it was a powerful assertion of the relevance of contemporary composition.

Above all, it was music-making of the highest quality.

The programme, which totals barely an hour’s listening, is calculated less to appeal than to challenge. John Harbison’s relentlessly objective Piano Quintet (1981) creates an emotional hunger that’s more than satisfied by Wilson’s richly subjective Messenger (1999/2006).

Originally scored for full orchestra, this four-movement violin concerto was given its first performance by Leonard in 2001. Now condensed for 13 instruments, the latest version reduces the forces, but not their intense effectiveness.

It’s a memorable piece for many reasons, but especially for strongly idiomatic solo writing that places the traditional virtuosities – gliding position changes, cantilenas, trills, double stops and dazzling passages – in newly poignant surroundings.

Wilson can be optimistic that it will be more widely taken up. How many violinists will bring the solo part nearer to perfection than Leonard does is harder to predict.