Taming the ‘Tempest’

April 23, 2007

The weather outside wasn’t exactly frightful, but it was certainly moody Friday, and unable to decide whether it was officially a rainy day. Inside the Music Academy of the West’s intimate Abravanel Hall, Camerata Pacifica was holding one of its endearing “lunchtime concerts.” The contrast of the warmth inside, both the literal and musical sort, and the weather outside, visible through the room’s large windows, made this one of the more inviting afternoons in the musical chamber this season.

Specifically, the primary cause for warm spirits at this concert was the rare airing of contemporary from the very recent past, with Paul Moravec’s engaging “Tempest Fantasy.” Written in 2003, this was not a world premiere or an established work from, say, the last century, but a work from the past five years well worth hearing and playing. Oh, and it also happens to have won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

A musical treatment of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” the 30-minute, five-movement piece isn’t strict in its references, but instead, is loosely inspired by the play’s “characters, moods, situations and lines of text,” according to the composer. The sum effect is complex and exciting to behold, and a technical challenge for musical takers-on.

A quartet drawn from the Camerata’s ranks included the predictably ravishing Catherine Leonard on violin, pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald, cellist Emil Miland and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester, who meshed empathetically.

It opens with the movement called “Ariel,” a wild, infectiously vigorous section. Triplets in perpetual motion move in waves across the quartet, in contrast with the following “Prospero” movement, which starts slow and soft but builds in gnarled intensity before returning to calm. “Caliban” also traces an arc from gentleness to a more frenzied state before fragmenting down to a final, lone tone on bass clarinet.

“Sweet Airs” might more accurately be dubbed bittersweet, and the final “Fantasia” is a meal in itself — a longer, culminating movement that touches on earlier themes and takes a more freely exploratory approach. Gusty winds of musical energy mix with subtle breezes, but mostly it opts for the former, befitting the tempestuous subject at hand.

Moravec’s musical vocabulary is a likeable mèlange. Though clearly of his time, his music also has enough of a link to tonal and even romantic influences, as to make it accessible to those listeners otherwise suspicious of contemporary music. Clearly serious in its intent and patina, the music shows a sense of fun and adventure.

In that he injects his post-modernist tendencies with undertones of romantic design and feeling, the composer’s Pulitzer-winning piece also manages to get along well with others on the given program. In this case, the programmatic bedfellow was Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet for Piano in E-flat, Opus 120, No. 2. Franch-Ballester returned, joined by pianist Warren Jones, for a captivating performance of the piece, individually and conversationally majestic in the reading.

Santa Barbara’s classical audience most recently encountered Brahms in a very different setting, as the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Santa Barbara Choral Society and Westmont College Chorus took on Brahms’ great “German Requiem” at the Arlington a week earlier. Of course, Brahms could overstuff his compact chamber music, while achieving delicate subtlety in his more grandiose orchestral writing.

One of the last pieces Brahms wrote, and teeming with the composer’s romantic huff and puff, the Sonata packs a dynamic wallop into its confines of a duet. Whatever subjective baggage a listener brings to this side of Brahms, it made for a wonderful vehicle for these fine musicians. They brought precision and passion to the task, in the right measure.

In all, the concert proved a fine way to keep the rain at bay.