Lunching in the chamber

Lunching in the chamber : Camerata Pacifica let the bassoon and the horn shine in concert this month

October 20, 2008

For its monthly lunchtime concert, Friday at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall, the venerable chamber music group Camerata Pacifica ventured a kind of equal time proposition. It trained a spotlight on instruments — bassoon and horn — not normally showcased in soloist positions. The safe-as-milk music itself, from Saint-Saens and Brahms, was another comfy romantic matter.

John Steinmetz, a dazzling, longtime anchoring musician on the Camerata Pacifica roster, had his 12 minutes of fame as the soloist on Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata in G, Opus 168. Although written in 1920, the music happily leans back to an expressive language from before the revolutions of Modernism and Impressionism.

High on the list of the piece’s charms is the sonic rarity of hearing the bassoon, stage front. Ably backed by pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Mr. Steinmetz acquitted himself with persuasive ease and polish. He did all the right things: the lyricism atop cascading piano arpeggios in the first movement; the more antic, kinetic angles of the second (which the bassoonist described to us as bearing “a little bit of Halloween”); and the alternately gentle gleam and high energy cap-off of its final movement.

Weighing in as the centerpiece of this mini-concert, Brahms’ Horn Trio in E-flat, Opus 40 is a half-hour piece played with unerring clarity by horn player Steve Becknell, violinist Catherine Leonard, and Mr. Fitz-Gerald on piano. The score has a fairly democratic distribution of melodic wealth between the players, whose energies and involvements tend toward collective efforts rather than individual glories.

We get a distinctive, and at first slightly, disarming timbral blend through the presence of the horn in the more common violin/piano chamber music mix. This is music of ever-oscillating mood swings, minute to minute at times. Emotional colors range from the ardent to the bombastic, especially in the first two movements.

Our ears relish the arrival, halfway through, of the Adagio’s introspective relief. After that movement’s cooler ruminations, the heat turns up again for the brisk, celebratory flourish of the finale.

Lack of programmatic challenge notwithstanding, Friday’s musical repast impressed on many fronts, including the sheer inspiration of this midday chamber music tradition and the host environment itself. Starting with last month’s season-kicker concert, Camerata Pacifica has settled into the newly opened Hahn Hall’s handsome confines — handsome, in visual and acoustic terms — and is enjoying a homecoming sensation this season. The group has been a transient organism for many years.

Meanwhile, its operations have been tilting southward, and also the international scene, including a UK tour last spring. In addition to Santa Barbara performances, it has monthly series in Ventura, Pasadena and Zipper Hall, in downtown Los Angeles.

Current brochures find core members of the collective posed before the L.A. skyline. Yet locals who have followed this group’s long, ongoing success story, from the days when it began as the Bach Camerata, may still think of the Camerata as a local-grown sensation. It’s a local entity with global ambitions, unfolding by the season.