IN CONCERT: A mindful, muscular celebration

Celebrating its Silver Anniversary, Camerata Pacifica makes profound impact with John Harbison premiere

By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent

September 19, 2014



Lest there be any confusion about what makes the newly launched concert season of the Camerata Pacifica extra-special, the chamber group opened its season last week with programs bearing a large, splashy numerical point of pride: “25.” Pride is well in order for this now venerable group.

Founded humbly by flutist and situation-stoker Adrian Spence in Santa Barbara, it has grown into what is now one of the prime chamber music organizations on the West Coast, with monthly concerts around Southern California, a stellar complement of musicians and an aesthetic agenda that gamely attempts to appease the standard rep fans and those of us seeking out fresher, more contemporary-ish sounds to savor. They are obviously doing many things right, and weathering the culture storms — such as the recent post-2008 economic downturn/downpour of woes.

Moving from the general to the specifics of last Friday’s show at Hahn Hall, Camerata Pacifica has opted to celebrate its milestone year in the boldest ways, by synchronizing its new season with the release of its very first CD, on the reputable Harmonia Mundi label, no less, and with a stunning new world premiere. Both notable events involve one John Harbison, on the very short list of great living American composers, who was commissioned by a consortium of Camerata-linked patrons to pen a stunner of a new work, his “String Trio.” We heard it here first. Almost.

Technically, the Santa Barbara performance of Mr. Harbison’s powerful three-way piece was its second public outing, the actual “world premiere” having taken place the night before in Los Angeles. But that L.A. reading, the wry Mr. Spence suggested, “was just a dress rehearsal for tonight.” No sense in splitting hairs over who and where got what first: the important point is that Mr. Harbison, who began contemplating writing such a piece when he was a precocious teenager, in the early ’50s, has created a chamber music crown jewel, full of challenge and consolation, melodic gleam and thorny muscularity.

Friday’s program was wisely devised, with traditional chamber favorites flanking the central “String Trio” “event” (which it truly was). It seemed entirely fitting that Mr. Spence himself, a very fine flutist, took the spotlight in the concert/season opener, Mozart’s “Flute Quartet No. 1 in D Major, K. 285,” with the group’s new violinist, the assured veteran Movses Pogossian and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan (who filled in on all but the “String Trio” for regular cellist, Ani Aznavoorian, who very recently became a mother) and violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill.

After intermission, the audience was treated to a moving performance of Schubert’s great, late and substantial (45 minutes, time-wise) “Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat Major, D. 929.” Written in the last year of his short life and stocked with now ever-popular themes — such as the poignant Andante main theme, reworked in the finale — the score was boldly realized by a trio of Camerata forces, especially pianist Warren Jones.

Clearly, though, despite the polished old musical business, Friday’s concert was all about the Harbison, which is also the centerpiece work on the new, all-Harbison Harmonia Mundi CD — a disc well worth owning, by the way, for sentimental and purely musical reasons. Hearing it on disc is one thing, though, while the live experience — impeccably played in Hahn Hall by Mr. Pogossian, Ms. Aznavoorian and Mr. O’Neill — was all the more impactful and memorable as a listening encounter.

A varied emotional and stylistic landscape spreads out over seven moments, a diversity-geared musical approach, which, in its opening movement starts in a pensive mode, grows tense with cross-talk between the threesome and eases into a sighingly melodic section.

Different passages throughout the piece alternately fold into and bump up against each other, as the brooding Adagio yields to the bright hues of the first Intermezzo, and a second Intermezzo drifts into some airy, mystical moments.

Higher energies and tonal contrast come to bear in the rigorous finale, with some almost Shostakovich-like jabs and muscular feints, capping off the adventure with five stabbing, awakening chords, as opposed to an easier-fit end game. It feels strangely resolved and suspended, like a story that continues into the indefinite yonder.

With his “String Trio,” the composer, well-known for his ability to write music at once directly engaging and intellectually stimulating — and for dodging dogmatic or easy “ism” identifications — has created a powerful, poignant and involving contribution to the slim catalogue of pieces in the medium, the best known of which is by Mozart.

All things considered, the half-hour Harbison triumph, a compact but large-minded world unto itself, amounts to what was quite possibly the singular highlight of the Camerata Pacifica’s first quarter-century on the scene. But that’s just one long-time and ongoing CP fan’s perspective.