Concert Review: The Shiver of the New

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
April 17, 2012

For the April installment of Camerata Pacifica’s concert season, caught Friday night at Hahn Hall, the program amounted to a tale of two sensibilities, from different corners of the geo-cultural landscape. Call it an east-meets-west meets western-centric programming scenario.

In one corner, most significantly, the spotlight went to two pieces — one an exhilarating world premiere by Chinese-born, NYC-based composer Bright Sheng. Sheng’s new “Melodies of a Flute,” commissioned by local music patrons Luci and Richard Janssen in honor of their 40th anniversary, proved to be a stunner, and a ripe follow-up to the 2010 piece he also wrote for Camerata Pacifica, “Hot Pepper, for Violin and Marimba,” which sounded even better the second time around, opening Friday night’s doings.

In the other, cozier and more western corner, we heard two longish pleasantries from the affable quarters of twentieth century musical thinking. These examples of pleasant enough chamber pillow talk — Eric Ewazen’s “Ballade, Pastorale and Dance” and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s “Sextet in C, Opus 37,” were wonderfully-played (as generally expected from this group’s top notch performing), and entertaining, but forgettable.

Premiered in 1993 in Aspen, the three-movement piece by Mr. Ewazen (played here by
flutist Adrian Spence, pianist Adam Nieman and Steve Becknell on horn), flows easily with its post-post-impressionistic sway and billow. Somehow, though, it all comes and gusts off without much purpose or substance, sometimes suggesting the breezy patter of unused film scoring.

More idle musical banter continued with Dohnanyi’s 1935 vintage Sextet, comprising the half-hour second part of the concert. The four-part work, despite its assorted charms along the way, tends to lean and yawn backward from the 20th to the 19th century, into the influence of the composer’s hero, Brahms. Some giddy wryness perks up interest in the final “giocoso” movement, but too little, too late to breathe much life into the antiquate curio.

Clearly, this evening was owned by the sound of Bright Sheng’s fascinating compositional voice. Mr. Sheng’s “Hot Pepper,” played by violinist Catherine Leonard and exemplary percussionist Ji Hye Jung on marimba, is an evocative and dynamic piece of work, through which east and west musical polarities freely interact, without making a point about the cultural meeting. Pizzicato parts on violin create an empathetic bond with the percussion partner, as well as the percussive nature of some Chinese stringed instruments.

As for the musical language, east-west dialoguing and the blend of folk-ish influences and serious music rigor are seamlessly interwoven, making for a wonderful piece of chamber music.

Similarly, those symbiotic values are well in place once again in “Melodies of a Flute,” beautifully delivered — and brought into the world — by Mr. Spence, Ms. Leonard, Ms. Jung and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. The composition is based upon interpretations of the poetry of 11th century Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao— who was distinctive for being a woman and writing about the passions and pressures of love, literally and metaphorically

. In the first movement, “Flute and Phoenix,” mixes scamper, restless flute and marimba lines turn suddenly and crisply in unison, along with slow, harmonized long times from the strings. Throughout its wavering textures, the movement involves contrasting agitation and languor, the calm glow of love, longing, the rough and tumble of love, and the hollow ring of absence.

Things turn more assertive and driving, more declarative than the earlier ambivalence, in the second “Lotus Flowers” movement. A steadily propulsive energy prevails, with motoric 16th notes running through it, a life force wending around angular syncopated accents, but ending on a graceful sigh of closure. All told, “Melodies of a Flute” has a compelling and also emotionally complicated personality, inviting future hearings. Like poetry, the music keeps its interpretive options open, even while stating its case assuredly, an ideal artistic paradox.

Without a doubt, Mr. Sheng’s new work ascends high in the ranks of important and thrilling musical events in the current local classical season. Sheng and CamPac have got to go on meeting like this.