Eclectic treats await Camerata Pacifica fans on Sunday in Ventura

Ventura County Star
By Rita Moran
May 18, 2013

An Irish mezzo-soprano singing a Czech composer’s “Gypsy Songs” in a German translation, a U.S. premiere of a work built around a sonnet by a Nobel Prize winner, an opening “extra” featuring a high school string orchestra playing Vivaldi. What group would venture forth with a program like that?

Camerata Pacifica, the chamber music ensemble under the artistic direction of Irish-born flutist Adrian Spence, would, and does — with frequency. Armed with a stellar cast of instrumentalists who are each major figures in today’s musical world, Spence can program music composed for the group in any of its various configurations along with hidden treasures from the past, fresh renditions of revered classics and cheeky interjections of amusement, both musical and verbal.

Camerata regularly brings this choice brew to fans in Santa Barbara, where it is based, and Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah. Both cities have been on the ensemble’s schedule since its founding 23 years ago, with Los Angeles and Pasadena venues soon added. The group will wrap up its season Sunday, May 19, in Ventura, and Tuesday, May 21, in Pasadena.

Spence, born in Northern Ireland’s County Down, brought principal violinist Catherine Leonard, another native of the island, on board eight years ago. The violinist was front and center Friday night in Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall to begin her “departure tour” as she prepares to return to her Irish base and European opportunities.

But first came the surprise guests: The String Orchestra of the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in Los Angeles, a group that has been mentored by Camerata. The string ensemble, numbering about two dozen, performed Vivaldi’s Concerto for Flute & Strings in D Major conducted by Jennifer Elliott and featuring Spence as the flute soloist. The combination not only lent itself to charming moments — such as when Spence and individual string principals joined in gentle duets against the full-string background — but it provided a convincing display of the high school students’ developing talents.

When Camera turned its attention to the regular program, it did not disappoint. Arnold Bax’s Quintet for Oboe and Strings brought the amazing talent of British oboist Nicholas Daniel to the fore. Extended melodic lines and swift-moving coloration were accomplished with elan, while the soloist scarcely seemed to draw a visible breath. Supporting Daniel throughout were other members of Camerata’s illustrious crew: violinists Leonard and Ara Gregorian, violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Ani Aznavoorian.

Then came Antonin Dvorak’s “Gypsy Songs,” Opus 55, featuring mezzo Kate Allen, another Irish artist, now based in the Bay Area. Allen unleashed a stunningly pure and full-bodied tone as she winningly made her way through the seven songs, superbly accompanied by Warren Jones, a pianist extraordinaire known throughout the world as a musician of major interpretive and technical skills.

The one song in the varied group that most music fans recognized fondly was “Als die alte Mutter,” in English usually translated as “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

The U.S. premiere of Belfast composer Ian Wilson’s “Dreamgarden” wrapped up the long, but riveting, first half of the program. Built around, and culminating in, Glanmore Sonnet No. 10 by Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, the short movements passed through dreams of flight, anxiety and tears before setting into Heaney’s meditation on the ephemeral joys of love. Spence set the mood by reciting the 14-line sonnet (“I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal/On turf banks under blankets, with our faces/Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle…”), then picked up his flute and joined Allen, Daniel, Leonard, O’Neill, Aznavoorian and Jones in the evocative work.

Finally, after Leonard voiced her appreciation for the openness and appreciation of audiences over her eight-year partnership with Camerata, and Spence and the rest presented her with a laudatory plaque, she, Gregorian, O’Neill, Aznavoorian and Jones launched into Dvorak’s Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 2 in A Major, reminding all once again why it’s easy to love Camerata Pacifica.

The ensemble has an unstinting commitment to the music it plays, and a joy often reaching rapture in the process.

The group’s 2013-14 season will bring back many of their present, and past, musicians along with programs featuring happy blends of what’s new, and what’s worth a new look. Among the performers will be the piano duo of Joanne Pearce Martin and Gavin Martin; violinist Paul Huang; principal percussionist Ji Hye Jung; and most of the musicians involved in this past weekend’s season-closing concerts. Composers will include Harbison, Huang Ruo, Auerbach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Lutoslawski, Carter, Farr, Psathas, Britten, Heggie and Dring.