Chamber gymnastics, back to Bach

By Josef Woodard, NewsPress Correspondent
November 27, 2015 12:00 AM

Whenever the veteran (26 years and counting) chamber ensemble Camerata Pacifica dips into the well of Bach – as it did with last season’s finale of the Brandenburg Concertos and with last Friday’s Bach-iana, Sonata in G minor for Oboe & Piano – longtime observers of the group tend to take a little time trip. This intrepid and ever-impressive ensemble, founded by the charming and tireless flutist Adrian Spence, started its life as the Bach Camerata, with more Bach on the brain and menu, naturally.

Fast forward to 2015, and the group’s evolutionary arc has soared upward and onward compared to those salad days, with a healthy concert season in four different locales around Southern California, and with a tradition of steering some truly world class musicians through our town. As a fine example of the lofty caliber of players passing through CamPac, the latest concert featured four dazzling musicians. The reliably strong and sensitive violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill we’ve heard on a regular basis on the Hahn Hall stage. British oboist Nicholas Daniel and Spanish clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester are periodic guests, both masters of their instruments.

The newbie here, and remember this name, was pianist Molly Morkoski, making her Camerata debut with the bold confidence and interactive grace one wants in a devoted chamber music maker. Ms. Morkoski has played in Santa Barbara before, and memorably, when she played from Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata,” performing with soprano Dawn Upshaw at the Lobero back in 2007. It was one of those “wow” moments in that concert year, still lingering in the memory. Here she demonstrated her more-than-worthy powers as a robust addition to the Camerata roster. (She returns to perform with them in March).

Bach ruled the program last week, as Ms. Morkoski and Mr. Daniel navigated their way through the challenging, sublime grid work of the Sonata – the concert’s clear highlight. After a brief, bravura viola solo work, Henri Vieuxtemps’ “Hommage . . . Paganini,” the clarinetist, violist and pianist gave a rich and lucid account of Mozart’s Trio in E-flat Major, “Kegelstatt,” another concert pinnacle.

Mr. Daniel had introduced the obscure 19th century French composer Edouard Destenay to Mr. Spence, in the form of the composer’s Trio in B Minor for Oboe, Clarinet & Piano, Opus 27, which turned out to be “the seed” of Mr. Spence’s program design, he informed the crowd. Don’t rush out to Google or download Destenay, however. This work, at least, was a forgettable huff and piffle – one of those late 19th century pieces which sound at once over-heated and undercooked. It did, however, provide fireworks opportunities for the wind players. Mr. Franch-Ballester continued the trend with Luigi Bassi’s Fantasia on Themes from “Rigoletto,” a breezily operatic showpiece.

In the end, apart from the profundities of the Bach and Mozart on the program, the music here lacked much in the way of musical depth or purpose, beyond vehicles for brave and accomplished musicians to show their stuff – which they did, nimbly. Alas, though, it was too often a night at the virtuoso circus. But the best came first, and old Bach saved the day in the end.

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