CONCERT REVIEW: Further ventures in the chamber : Camerata Pacifica taps Old Europe and 20th century American music

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
January 15, 2014 8:55 PM

Late last fall, in the previous two installments of the current season of the ever-changeable Camerata Pacifica chamber music group, we heard fine music made on one, then two pianos. The stage population continued to expand when the Camerata reconvened for its first concert of the new year, Friday at Hahn Hall, with a variety program including a duo, trio and two different quintets, and music from old Europe — Haydn and old comfy chair favorite Brahms — and mostly agreeable quarters of 20th Century American music, Elliott Carter and John Harbison.

In a chronologically-organized set of music, the concert opened with Haydn’s inspiring and graceful Piano Trio in C, a model of grace and brisk classicism by a composer who somehow still hasn’t gotten his due; in effect, Haydn invented/perfected the symphony, the string quartet and was also instrumental in mastering the piano trio medium — albeit with a decided emphasis on piano as protagonist. Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, cellist Ani Aznavoorian and pianist Warren Jones, as they say, nailed it (no surprise given their stellar track record).

Next came a heaping helping of Brahms (historically one of the meat and potatoes items on this group’s repertoire menu), in the form of his Quintet No. 2 in G, Opus 111, a half-hour work with fatty Brahms-ian romantic soup in the mix. For the occasion, violists Richard O’Neill and Jonathan Moerschel, and violinist Paul Huang joined Schwartz Moretti and Aznavoorian, and they collectively did the right thing, interpretively.

In many ways, the real thrill and focus of this evening came post-intermission and with a westward trip across the pond, as the focus turned to work by Carter and Harbison, a pair of America’s greatest composers of the 20th century (and Harbison’s history continues, still going strong at 75, and collaborating with the Camerata on its first CD project).

What we heard from the late, great and admirably uncompromising American musical hero Carter was one of his early, kindlier works — from before he really became “the” Elliott Carter, feisty modernist genius with no interest in pandering to tonal, accessible populism. But there was nothing fierce or challenging about his reflective “Elegy,” this version written for viola and piano, and beautifully played by pianist Mr. Jones and the group’s commanding violist Mr. O’Neill (for whom the aging but active Carter wrote a piece, at age 103, shortly before the composer’s death).

Ending the evening on the most muscular note of the program, Mr. Harbison’s 1981 vintage Piano Quartet, offered ample proof of this fine composer’s unique strengths, as someone who abides by no definitive “ism” or musical language, and caters neither to stern contemporary ideas or easy-breezy ear massage tonalism (or minimalism). As heard in this work, the composer’s expression can go to a thorny place, without being didactic or atonal — sometimes with a kind of backwoods Bartok-ian flavor — but with lyricism and melodic logic lending aspects of release to the built-in tensions.

In Hahn Hall, an impressively on-point and tautly integrated grouping llumined the five-movement piece, framed by longer, free sections serving as miniature character studies. “Burletta,” for instance, is a burlesque-ish snort of a piece, while the final “Elegia” is by turns anguished and circumspect, in a 20th century kind of way.

For this month’s visit to the Camerata well, Harbison’s music stole the show. It was exciting and satisfying to hear sharply-realized music this substantial, vital and fresh — a mere thirtysomething in age — in a Santa Barbara venue. It gives hope, for the future/semi-present of classical music in town.