In Concert: All Mozart, all the time

December 10, 2007

A good news/bad news scenario has befallen Camerata Pacifica this season, in regard to the Santa Barbara component of its monthly traipsing around Southern California. While the Music Academy of the West is being renovated, the chamber music series has gone transient, switching venues according to availability.

On the upside of the situation, fine and lesser-used rooms around town have been exposed to the classical muse, and audiences have broadened their vocabulary of chamber music suitability in Santa Barbara. On Friday, the temporary housing was the El Montecito Presbyterian Church.

Despite the utilitarian nature of the concert-fitted all-purpose room — similar to the room where the group plays in Ventura, at Temple Beth Torah — the El Montecito proved to be an accommodating site for an enticing all-Mozart program. As music lovers and programmers understand, or have been trained to believe, Mozart goes down easy anytime of year, but especially in summer and during the holiday season.

While larger forces were deployed for Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante and the String Quartet in G Minor, K. 516, on this program, the best came first, in the leanest package. Opening the evening was the Duo No. 1 for Violin and Viola, K. 423, a fascinating piece with proportions and power beyond the economy of its instrumentation.

Most important in this localized setting, the work afforded a close encounter with violinist Catherine Leonard and Camerata newcomer Richard O’Neill on viola, from Ireland and Korea, respectively. We’ve noted the intensity and subtlety of both musicians in recent concerts, and together, they amounted to a dynamic duo.

Onstage, they rode the energy of the outer movements and captured a kind of glowing introspection on the Adagio. Here was an example of what makes attentively played chamber music such an intimate and addictive pleasure in the pursuit of classical music.

On the program, the quartet and sextet were switched, a wise move in the interest of corralling momentum and arranging happy endings. The G Minor, K. 516, part of a set of quartets dedicated to his mentor Haydn, was written in 1787, four years before Mozart’s death and deep into the heavier period of his writing.

Penned around the same time as his opera Don Giovanni, the G Minor bears a key which naturally lends a dark-ish tenor to the proceedings, and the quartet here — with violinists Ms. Leonard and Stefan Milenkovich, Mr. O’Neill and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. Yet the composer’s penchant for going to the dark side is always mediated by his classical composure and sense of underlying form and order — at least in the light of hindsight. Spirits brighten notably in the final movement, its melodic line driven supply here by Mr. Milenkovich.

After intermission, the sonic palette expanded with the Grande Sestetto Concertante, a compact arrangement of the Sinfonia Concertante made anonymously in 1808. A fervent Allegro opening, fittingly performed, is an appetizer for the main events to come. The Andante is an especially moving entry in the generous collection of great Mozart slow movements, with a pensive, ruminative lyricism over a tolling pulse.

Ending with due crispness, the group’s controlled boisterousness fueled the brisk, presto finale, as if serving up holiday-ready panache for the occasion.