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Heft, heart found in the chamber

Heft, heart found in the chamber: Amid Tea Fire anxieties, Camerata Pacifica gave musical balm

SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS
JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
November 17, 2008

Sometimes external pressures weigh heavily on the interior life of culture. As Camerata Pacifica performed Friday night, a sulfuric aroma hung in the air around the Music Academy of the West campus, across the freeway from where the Tea Fire had exacted its terrible toll the night before. Anxieties still were high that unruly winds might kick up more destruction this night — a fear, thankfully, unfulfilled.

As Camerata dipped into its program of cerebral contemporary work by Ian Wilson and the more familiar comforts of Schubert and Brahms, this writer could feel a sense of succor. Still, a feeling of sadness and vulnerability colored this concert experience.

Intrepid Camerata founder Adrian Spence opened the evening on flute. Joined by nimble pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Mr. Spence gave us a confident reading of Mr. Wilson’s “Heft,” a substantial piece he commissioned and premiered last season. It’s too bad more new music doesn’t get the benefit of repeat visits, but such is the thank-goodness-for-small-favors nature of contemporary music.

As memory serves, the inaugural performance last season was more tentative than Friday’s encore. Mr. Spence took a fuller, rounder approach to the score’s tense tonality that’s blended with darkly lyrical accessibility. The hefty 25-minute work ends on an airy note, with one last piano cluster serving as both a muted exclamation point and a question mark. Such paradox runs throughout this piece, to its credit.

In the concert’s second half, during Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25 — a sizable four-movement work — cellist Lars Hoefs provided some comic relief when he removed a handkerchief and mopped the sweat that fell from his forehead onto his instrument. Brahms’ music, at its most romantic bombast, seems notably swoopy, and it encouraged the kind of emotive overkill the musicians here dutifully supplied.

Another highlight of this program came from the commanding Richard Yongjae O’Neill on viola, an instrument deserving greater respect and front-of-stage time. Mr. O’Neill was the luminous protagonist on Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata,” written for the obscure (and relatively obsolete) bowed guitar-like instrument, the arpeggione, but adapted for cello and other instruments in lead roles.

Backed again with consummate support by Mr. Fitz-Gerald, Mr. O’Neill demonstrated considerable technical finesse and understated charisma on the score, doling out bravura and sensitivity in proper measure. He delivered the right stuff in the deep and confiding spirit of the Adagio — with its almost confessional air in the writing — and in the climactic final movement, with its rapid-fire intensity coated with Schubert-ian grace, right down to the final flourish.

All in all, after a night of local infamy, anxieties were soothed and minds were distracted for a couple hours.