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Concert Review: When the Going Gets Modern

When the going gets modern: For its latest concert, Camerata Pacifica featured its most adventurous and contemporary program of the season

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
April 12, 2011

When the history of the current classical concert season in Santa Barbara is written — on a blog, a small pamphlet, a large napkin or whatever source — certain truths will be self-evident. Among them is the fact that the two most adventurous programs of 2010-11 in town (not including UCSB’s in-house programming) were the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s dazzling March concert, stocked with Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud, and last week’s Camerata Pacifica show, almost shockingly delicious for any current or converted fan of the new.

For last week’s Camerata program, performed at Hahn Hall on Friday and around Southern California on other days, the pendulum swung toward the contemporary music cause, and not just some nicey-nice confection of Philip Glass or some such ear candy. Between the 2001 Quartet for Oboe and String Trio by great American composer Elliott Carter (103 years old and counting), Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1990 String Trio and a premiere by Chinese-American composer of note Huang Ruo, this program’s first half
buzzed with the sounds of “difficult” music.

As much as the premiere of a new and fine cello-oboe piece by Huang Ruo was the big news item on this program, it could also be argued that the most important moment came first, with an all-too rare performance of music by Carter, America’s most eminent living composer, but someone seldom programmed, at least west of the Mississippi.

As heard in this rousing performance of his quartet, with the virtuosic Nicholas Daniel on oboe and Camerata regulars Catherine Leonard, violin, Ani Aznavoorian, cello, and violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill, Carter’s music is less frightening than it may seem to some. He is one of those few engaging composers working in the dissonant, “serial” manner — like Boulez, Webern, Berg and maybe Mel Powell — who can really sell the muscular and expressive power of what is quite uncompromising, Modernist music.

In Carter’s case, and this piece was an example, he likes to draw on the dramatic interplay of parts, the conversational element between players in a given setting. Here, that setting blends the stately, cufflinked sound of the oboe and wilder gusts from the string players, pairing off in duets but joined at the ensemble.

For Penderecki’s String Trio, the score benefitted from the notably empathetic and long-standing, inhouse Camerata trio of string players. From the outset, slashing angular chords frame solos by each player, which at some point, gives way to a propulsive rhythmic charge. It all adds up to a fiery and colorful assertion of the famed Polish composer’s masterful touch, in a compact context.

Things got yet more compact, while also fanning outward in expressive means, in the ink-still-wet new Things got yet more compact, while also fanning outward in expressive means, in the ink-still-wet new piece by Ruo, whose previous contact with the Camerata was his memorable “Four Corners,” opening last year’s 20th anniversary season. The composer’s “Book of the Forgotten, for Oboe and Viola” is another winner, an engaging four-part piece resplendent in the personalized east-west vocabulary similar to his earlier piece for this group.

At Hahn Hall, Mr. Daniel and Mr. O’Neill read off the same series of music stands, moving slowly across the score and rising to its various demands. At times, those demands are openly technical and virtuositytesting, where, elsewhere, an extreme lyrical sensitivity is required, including a third movement in which a rueful, Chinese folk-flavored cello melody is punctuated with oboe drone tones and sonic spasms.

Throughout the work, tensions seek resolutions, which arrive in various, and elegant solutions. Here is contemporary music well worth knowing more about.

After intermission, the program returned to a safe and cozy zone, the regularly scheduled programming. It was same old, same old, but also with the Camerata’s same old high standards of performance and commitment to the scores at hand, whatever the vintage. Oboist Daniels sounded a bit atypically raggedy on Saint-Saens’ Sonata in D for Oboe and Piano, Opus 166, possibly worn out by the rigors of the concert’s first half. But the string trio effortlessly nailed Beethoven’s String Trio in D, Opus 9, No. 2, a reassuringly gleaming classical period piece, before Beethoven himself unleashed the radical within.

On another note — not directly musical, but actually extremely musical in the larger definition — this evening was dedicated to an important benefactor in Santa Barbara’s cultural life, Stephen Hahn, after whom the splendid Hahn Hall was named.