Concert Review: The Power of Two

Santa Barbara News-Press
Josef Woodard
January 16, 2013

If there was a presiding theme in Camerata Pacifica’s first concert of the New Year Friday night at Hahn Hall, it clearly had to do with the math and the powers of the duo. In the malleable membership of the always-impressive and also shifting chamber musical ensemble, this evening boiled down to three musicians — violinist Catherine Leonard, pianist Warren Jones, and violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill — who were mixed and matched over a program of friendly and fairly challenge-free music from Brahms, Ravel, Mozart and Russian pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein.

This night’s performance began with a notable bit of internal housekeeping, as pianist Warren Jones, a familiar musician on the Santa Barbara scene, through both the Camerata and his role in the Music Academy of the West, was granted the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation endowed chair in piano. He is the first such occupant of the position, akin to the Bob Christensen Chair in Violin bestowed on Ms. Leonard. Patronage of this sort is to be applauded, and is evermore vital to the perpetuation of the classical music species in these lean economic times.

Both chair holders amply proved their worth as the program began, in a potent and lucid reading of Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor, Opus 108. Penned in 1886, the sonata is a four-movement grandstanding opus whose Brahms-ian huff-n-puff clearly satisfied the legions of Brahms fans in the town and in the crowd, while leaving others of us checking our watches, waiting for Ravel to save the day.

Which he did: Although written little more than a decade later than the Brahms, Ravel’s Sonate Posthume for Violin and Piano is a whole other expressive world, a gateway into the new century soon to come. Unpublished in the composer’s lifetime and much lesser known than Ravel’s popular sonata for violin and piano, the single-movement score is nonetheless a captivating piece of music, blessed with the modal hallmarks and impressionistic colors of his signature style, still unfolding when he was an early twentysomething.

Mr. Jones and Ms. Leonard masterfully captured that bold yet innately delicate blend of elements and dynamics embedded in the heart of Ravel’s music. In another feature of this particular night in the Camerata’s cultural life, it was a pleasure to hear the violinist back in the fold, after being missing-in-action last time around due to illness. She is a wonderful musician to behold, producing a glorious tone and an assured musicality, pretty much regardless of the turf or musical language of the score at hand.

Despite the focus on, and luminous playing of Mr. Jones, in some way, the show-stealing prize on this program came from our man Mozart, whose Duo for Violin and Viola in G, K. 423 is a rarity in the lean context of two string instruments — half a string quartet and sans the chordal grounding of piano — and a rare pleasure to hear. The minimalist clarity of the instrumentation and contrapuntal, conversational back and forth of the voices are key to the stark yet surprisingly engaging appeal of the setting in this three-movement work, beautifully realized by these players.

On this program, the longest work (and it felt like it) was Russian pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 49, its half-hour sprawl returning our ears to the goopy late 19th century Romantic soup tureen in which the concert began, with Brahms. Despite the Russian heritage, the score seems steeped in Western European musical manners, and the main selling point is its attention paid to that too-often underrated voice of the viola as soloist, however turgid the writing.

As proven on this night, the high point is its third movement, a charming and wily interchange between the players that prodded the packed Hahn Hall audience into a premature burst of applause, even though they obviously knew better. Sometimes, the fervor justifies a bit of rebellion from classical decorum.

Overall, if the January edition of the current Camerata season was one of the more conservative and 20th century-dodging programs of the season, it was also a solidly played and periodically inspiring opening salvo for the musical New Year. Let the high caliber chamber music games continue.