Opening Night Review: A Deep ‘See’ Journey

CONCERT REVIEW: A DEEP ‘SEE’ JOURNEY: Camerata Pacifica’s season opener ties disparate worlds together, and peeks into the future

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Daniel Kepl
September 19, 2011

There are at least two things that never change at Camerata Pacifica concerts: the music-making is always at a standard that can be described simply as impeccable, and Artistic Director Adrian Spence always speaks before each concert.

Mr. Spence’s pre-concert preambles are usually amusing, sometimes scandalous, but mostly they inform and prepare the audience for the evening’s musical meal. Friday’s chat, in advance of the ensemble’s opening concert of the season at Hahn Hall, on the Music Academy campus, was exhilarating. Mr. Spence was particularly inspired.

The job for interpretive artists, like musicians, is to figure things out; to uncover, interpret and present to the public, the result of their “research” into a particular piece of art music. The best composers, novelists, painters and playwrights organize big ideas into subtle, often obtuse packaging: intellectual secrets, waiting for inquisitive minds to discover. Mr. Spence and colleagues have figured out the secrets of George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae.”

To his credit, Mr. Spence often thinks big, and occasionally lets his audience in on his mindset. The entire first half of Friday’s program – music by Rachmaninoff, Crumb and Thierry De Mey – was conceived by the Artistic Director as an installation piece, complete with special comprehension enhancement – lighting. To deliver the message effectively, applause between pieces – we were informed, magnanimously – was strictly forbidden. Jawohl!

The concert began with a candle-like lighting coloration in one corner of the stage and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin playing Rachmaninoff’s C-Sharp Minor Prelude, Op. 3, No. 2. The piece, immediately recognizable to the audience, descended lower, deeper. The audience, myself included, will never again listen to this particular Rachmaninoff Prelude without connecting it to whales.

A light change involved luminous blue on another section of the stage, where Mr. Spence (flute), Ani Aznavoorian (cello) and pianist Vicki Ray had been in darkness. In a stroke of Spence-inspired genius, the audience was invited to visualize, literally, George Crumb’s masterpiece “Vox Balaenae,” before a sound was heard. The lighting idea is not particularly unique, but there was something about the conviction of the artists that succeeded in manifesting an important illusion: the deep-sea home of these leviathans.

Composed in 1971, a period in which American music was particularly stark, “Vox Balaenae” was comforting at the time, as now, without losing its contemporary cutting edge. Musicians wear masks for reasons discussed endlessly over the decades. There are special effects: electronically morphed sounds, percussion instruments, played by a trio of otherwise non-percussionists – all new then, but considered somewhat clichéd since.

Not to worry. Mr. Spence, who clearly investigates, then thinks long and hard about what he’s discovered and intends to program, sealed the deal on his all-encompassing programming vision Friday with “Musique de Table,” Thierry De Mey’s fun but serious take on percussive music-making. While the general effect of the piece is amusing (forget the double-entendre of the title), “Musique” is a virtuoso example of rhythm, sound effect and pulse, the life-blood of music.

Speaking of rhythm and pulse, the entire second half of Camerata Pacifica’s Friday opener was devoted to one infectious piece, by American minimalist Steve Reich: his Sextet for two pianists – acoustic and synthesized – and four percussionists, deploying marimbas, two vibraphones, two bass drums, crotales, sticks and tam-tam. Needless to say, a feast of percussion. And with an army of Mr. Spence’s percussion virtuosi in town – Ji Hye Jung, Svet Stoyanov, Michael Zell and Douglas Perkins – the Reich proved irresistably engaging to the full house on hand.

Has Adrian Spence’s programming succeeded as an architectural whole? The audience, initially submerged by the opening Rachmaninoff Prelude, then bathed in the deep blue glory of Crumb’s masterpiece, “Vox Balaenae,” surfaced again, with De Mey’s engaging “Musique de Table,” and the Reich Sextet. This critic is convinced the journey succeeded in bringing disparate worlds into confluence.

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photos: David Bazemore