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Varied Variations

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
February 15, 2012

Friday afternoon at Hahn Hall, the Camerata Pacifica “Lunchtime” concert program added up to one of those ideal blends of musical substance and enticement, moving across factors of era and style and packing a lot of musical worth into the space of an hour. While the musical vocabularies of heroic contemporary American composer John Harbison and the twentysomething, classical-esque pre-1800 period of Beethoven belong to different worlds, in time, place and language, certain affinities between them made this concert sing – including a thematic link to the time-honored notion of variations.

Most excitingly, Harbison’s 1987 work “Variations for Clarinet, Violin and Piano” takes the challenge and the comfort of the variations on a theme idea to new places, and toying with the very nature of the form laid out in the work’s mock generic title. Pianist Warren Jones, violinist Catherine Leonard and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester offered up a rousing reading of the fifteen-part score, cleverly organized into groups of five – variations on the variation form.

Taking as a loose inspiration a sculpture of a dancing goddess, Harbison proceeded in creating his mosaic-like meta-structure, with plenty of evocative ideas and twists along the way.

In fact, the very opening theme statement arrives with the oblique effect of violin and clarinet stating the melody in slightly staggered form, after which the theme goes every which way but straight.

True to the generally accepted view of Harbison’s skill for creating an accessible mode of modernism, “Variations” craftily pulls and lulls us into the gentle materials of its early variations. In the second set of five variations, the going gets harmonically and rhythmically tougher, suggesting Stravinsky-esque sinew.

A variation for violin and piano found Ms. Leonard laying ruggedly and fervently into double-stops, leading directly into a section with cascading arpeggios on clarinet, over pointillistic piano chords. After a section with the piano taking a furtive lead role, all three pile on, upping the heat and pulse.

In the eleventh variation, “Symbol,” the ensemble manner turns airy and ethereal, in a fragmented tapestry of two-note motifs. By the time of the extended finale and epilogue, a furious interchange of parts and internal arguments is capped off by an eerily soft, sighing release, a floating downward into a peaceable though still unresolved end game. Suffice to say, the narrative and musical byways of Harbison’s piece made for a cerebral thrill ride of an experience.

Next up, Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, No. 4, Opus 11, “Gassenhauer,” with Mr. Jones and Mr. Franch-Ballester now joined by the commanding cellist Ani Aznavoorian, expressed its own kind of wit and wisdom. Written when the composer was 28, and still under the strong influence of classicists Haydn and Mozart, the Trio marshals its interesting blend of voices in a lovely, mercurial invention, yet off to the side of typical in-chamber music repertoire.

In its own way, the Beethoven proved to possess some of the slow-release surprise factor similar to the Harbison. After the solidly structured opening movement and an elegant, subdued Adagio movement, the nature of this musical beast shifts in personality, moving into the realm of variations. On the comic operatic theme of “Pria ch’io l’impegno,” from Joseph Weigl’s “L’Amor Marinaro,” Beethoven spins out on an adventure of reconfigured ideas, alternately stately, playful and rugged, and with a snorting blast of witty bandying in the finale.

This is a beautiful, modest and well-balanced piece of chamber music, yet also one tickled by moments of surprising wit. As usual, it was performed with the assiduousness and spirit of engagement which have come to be expected properties of Camerata Pacifica concert life.