IN CONCERT: Camerata begins solid fifth season

September 19, 2007

For the past few years, locally based Camerata Pacifica has been a moveable chamber music feast in Santa Barbara venues. It has moved five times in as many years, roaming from Santa Barbara City College to Lobero Theatre to Victoria Hall Theater to the Music Academy of the West.

For the moment, due to construction at the Music Academy, Camerata has moved yet again, this time to the wonderfully evocative Fleischmann Auditorium at the Museum of Natural History. It was there that the new season kicked off on a Mozartean note Friday, featuring the welcome return of bold Irish pianist Barry Douglas. But venue notwithstanding, “feast” is the correct word to describe the organization, fortified with solid musicianship, stellar soloists and a sense of programming that at least tries to stray from the staples of repertoire.

As has happily become its custom, Camerata presents a shorter “lunchtime concert” by day and a fuller concert at night. Friday’s “lunchtime concert” was officially the first step of Camerata’s ambitious new season, which takes it to venues elsewhere in Southern California each month, as well as a national tour in May.

On Friday afternoon, a compact but rich matching of Mozart and Beethoven — with the post-Mozartean manners of the latter’s “Waldstein” sonata — made for a satisfying and cohesive event. The evening performance also included Liszt’s B Minor; but in a way, the “Liszt-less” lunch concert probably managed to better preserve its dignity and decorum.

Mozart’s Concerto in A, K. 414, involves the piano protagonist, joined by a string quartet with the addition of double bass. Leading the string ensemble was another striking Irish musician, Camerata regular violinist Catherine Leonard.

A briskly flurrying opening movement, with Mr. Douglas’ measured and sporty cadenza, settled into the elegant spread of the andante , blessed with the graceful profundity we expect of Mozart’s best slow movements. A bright finale capped off the piece, with the musicians in tauter form than when they began.

Mozart’s spirit isn’t too far beneath the surface of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C, “Waldstein,” written in 1805 in the vague middle zone between his classicist and romantic periods. Still, it’s a different expressive landscape, compared to Mozart’s relatively tidy formality. The introspective emotional richness of its stately opening movement yields to the airy, hushed lyricism of a second movement. Without pause, that reflective section pours out into the garrulous rondo , finale, with its feverish fortissimo bearing little relation to the subtler character of the opening.

Throughout, Mr. Douglas was a wonder who easily dispensed technical finesse but also put greater emphasis on the underlying musicality of the material and the moment. He brought to the Beethoven a depth of feeling and brooding beauty, aside from the inherent pianistic drama of the score.

There were moments, during the heavy-pedal sections in the Beethoven, when the sound got a bit lost and fuzzy in the hall’s sweeping, live acoustics. But otherwise, this room and chamber music get along very well indeed.

Unofficially, the hearty hour-long musical encounter was a long-awaited harbinger of the new classical music season in Santa Barbara. For classical music-hungry concert-goers in town, there is a palpable sense of a collective sentiment in the air at the moment: let the games begin. Please.