Mighty return

By Rita Moran
May 22, 2008

Power! Passion! Agility! No, it’s not the first big summer movie blockbuster, it’s the season finale of Camerata Pacifica, just back from its first international tour.

The chamber music ensemble, founded in 1990 by Northern Irish flutist Adrian Spence after he migrated to Santa Barbara, returned with enthusiastic review clips and thankfully no slackening of its trademark zest.

Assembled Sunday in Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah to cap the 2007-08 season were four of Camerata’s most impressive players: pianist Warren Jones, violinist Catherine Leonard, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. Their tasks on a very warm afternoon gave each moments to shine.

They’ll get to shine again Friday when the season-ending program is repeated at 8 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

At Temple Beth Torah, Leonard and O’Neill were first with Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat Major, a work the composer tossed off during a summer 1783 vacation. But even a smaller, simpler work by Mozart’s inspired hand can’t suppress his felicitous charms. Violin and viola were paired to both their advantages, the scampering joy of one playing off the darker, full-bodied tone of the other. All of the byplay and teamwork required in sustaining a continuous flow from one instrument to the other was handled effortlessly.

Artistic director Spence didn’t appear at the opening of the concert, allowing Leonard and O’Neill simply to step into the spotlight and play. But he couldn’t resist adding a few words after the applause died down, allowing that he almost let the afternoon progress “like a real classical music concert — dead composers and nobody talking.” He also couldn’t resist mentioning the group’s recent successful tour, and lauding the quality of the players assembled for the afternoon concert.

Even on first acquaintance, music lovers unfamiliar with Grieg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Minor could still identify with ease the work as that of the Norwegian composer. Somehow, the sonorities and the elegant, spacious themes all seem to trigger a sense of Grieg’s body of work, if not the famous piano concerto, then other evocations of Nordic spirit. Aznavoorian and Jones proved a powerful pair in evoking Grieg’s homeland while joining their individual strengths in a memorable performance of the work. Aznavoorian, using the marvelously resonant quality of her cello (crafted by her father, Peter Aznavoorian), was well able to match Jones’ thundering piano. They were equally adept at the more puckish moments, with the cellist plucking and the pianist lightly joining her with graceful staccato.

Finally, all four came together for Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. Piano and cello were again the dominating forces, although there were challenges and star turns for each instrument as the quartet flowed through sunshine and shadow with equal conviction.

The good news for Camerata Pacifica fans, of course, is that after Sunday, the ensemble will be back in September.