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The 19th Century Chamber

The 19th-century chamber: For its lunchtime concert on Friday, Camerata Pacifica turned to the accessible Rossini

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
November 21, 2011

As inherently pleasurable and somehow civilized as the Camerata Pacifica’s more or less monthly “Lunchtime program” concerts are, the shortened musical menus compared to the fuller evening programs can sometimes short-sell the more contemporary or challenging work on a given program. There can be a trade-off involved in the somewhat guilty-pleasure principle of hearing well-played live classical music at midday, in a non-urban locale.

That rule was almost happily broken at Friday’s lunch gathering at Hahn Hall, but it turned out to be a tease. According to plan, the hour-long program was slated to balance out the classic main dish fare of Schubert’s “Trout” quintet with a work by 20th-century British composer Elizabeth Lutyens, known for her personalized embrace of 12-1 music.

But the chamber group’s cherished violinist Catherine Leonard came onstage and immediately informed the audience that the newer piece was tossed for an old one, Rossini’s teenaged dream of a piece, the String Sonata No. 3 in C. Alas, we would be spending our listening time in the early 19th century, with music from the usual Dead White Male composer repertoire trough.

That said, the good news is that Camerata Pacifica dispensed its usual solid and engaging musicality on said program, and soothed the savage breast of grousers who long for more contemporary music in the Santa Barbara classical scene diet.

Rossini’s String Sonata, scored for an unusual format of two violins, viola and double bass, was written in 1804, when the legendary opera composer-to-be was only 12. It might be easy to chalk the piece off as juvenilia, which the composer himself did, but it’s a moving and mature-sounding piece of work, showing the young Italian to be precocious, and kissed by the muse.

Forces gathered at Hahn Hall – the impressively spot-on Ms. Leonard, violinist Caitlin Kelly (an ace student at Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles), cellist Andrew Janss and double bassist Tim Eckert – gave the pre-teen Rossini opus its interpretive attention due. There is some history, personal and general, in the configuring with this score. The sprightly first movement bows in the general direction of Mozart, yielding to the solemn, reflective spirit in the second, slow movement. Here, one senses premonitions of Rossini’s operative genius to come.

While the final movement is more blandly generic, it gamely gives each player a moment in the protagonist spotlight. All involved here fared boldly and beautifully, without overstepping the emotional dynamics of a piece that is essentially a modest occasion.

For the concert’s main event, Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A, D. 667, “Trout,” pianist Adam Nieman and violist Richard Youngjae O’Neill, gifted and familiar members of the CamPac chamber family, joined the stage. Like the Rossini, Schubert’s ever-popular chamber classic sports a non-classic instrumentation, with double bass bolstering the low end of the sonic palette.

Running 40 minutes in length, but still leaving us wanting more, Schubert’s easy-going masterpiece is a vast but approachable small world unto itself. The composer was 22 at the time of its writing, and the gravitas of some of his later music (before his death at age 31) was still to come.

Familiar, hale and jubilant strains of the Scherzo: Presto led into the gentler, stately current of the central fourth movement, a set of variations on the theme of Schubert’s own “Die Forelle” (“The Trout,” hence the posthumously applied subtitle). Temperaments and harmonic strategies shift during the deceptively casual variations movement, including some tentative flirtations with the minor key, giving it a structural and musical intrigue. Playfulness of structure and dynamic plotting continue in the final Allegro giusto, replete with a false ending.

On this midday meeting, however de-fanged and made audience-safe on the programming front, the musicians offered up a winning and polished sense of ensemble connectivity and gave us more than an earful of memorable music-making. The “Trout” especially benefited from some brilliant standout moments from pianist Adam Nieman and violinist Catherine Leonard. But then, that comes as no particular surprise to the regular, longtime Camerata Pacifica faithful, who have come to expect great things from these marvelous players.

A relative newcomer to the CamPac ranks, cellist Andrew Janss made a clear, strong impression here. He was sure of tonal and expressive character, a great addition to this generally robust roster of chamber players, always a delight to hear, whatever the century on the menu.