Camerata Pacifica: Chamber group opens with a bang

Adrian Spence likes to make it easy for critics. The director and flautist for Camerata Pacifica has not only been bringing the best of small-ensemble music to Santa Barbara for 14 years now, but his love of educating the public has been spilling out more and more into his lengthy introductions to the evening’s performances.

Though his target audience is the general public, the critic can’t help but crib notes when Mr. Spence is breaking down the structure of a string quartet or trying to explicate the wonders of discord. He’s so eminently quotable that we have to keep reminding ourselves that our job is not to quote him, but to have our own honest reactions.

The season opener looks to be the most contemporary of the entire 2003-04 schedule, with a first half devoted to the 20th century. Later shows will retreat back to the romantics and impressionists, and a full night of Brahms.

Two of the three first-half composers are still breathing, always a nice surprise. But first, Mr. Spence on flute and Jerome Simas on clarinet opened with André Jolivet’s “Sonatine for Flute and Clarinet.”
Exploiting the full range of the clarinet (the featured instrument of the first half), from its deep sonorous bass to its cutting high tones, the Sonatine creates a menacing landscape of empty plains and jagged outcroppings, into which Mr. Spence’s flute flew over or dive bombed. The piece culminated in a flurry of action, with both players sending their fingers scurrying over their instruments.

However, if the Jolivet was unnerving, the Penderecki was devastating, possibly the best selection of the night. His “Quartet for Clarinet and Strings” from 1993, raises the hair of the neck, with the violin and viola (Roger Wilkie and Donald McInnes) finding the stratospheric heights of their range, scarifying harmonics, while cellist John Walz maintained a steady drone throughout the first movement, Adagio. The Quartet is a tale of dread, of dark and bloody things around the corner in a dark room, possibly your own.

Osvaldo Golijov’s “Lullaby and Doina for Flute, Clarinet and Strings” comes to us from the soundtrack to “The Man Who Cried” (starring Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp), and stands well on its own, divorced from its visuals (which, alas, a majority of film music doesn’t). As the film combines lovers of Jewish and Gypsy stock, so does Golijov’s work, with a sweet, highly melodic composition based on a number of traditional scales from Eastern Europe (a “Doina” being a mode in Klezmer music close to the Dorian scale).

It’s a short piece, only seven minutes, with all three movements (the last being a “gallop,” befitting a romantic gypsy) blending together. The clarinet begins a motif of descending tones within its obbligato passages, all on top of a bed of rising melody, followed by the violin and viola. If there was a whammy-bar effect for non-electric instruments, it would sound like this, a coloring that deepened a sunny piece, very accessible to all in the audience, as well as intelligent. Surely, the composer is worthy of more than seven minutes. Next season, perhaps?

The second half of the evening began with Mr. Spence bringing us in for music school, matching example to words when he proclaimed Beethoven’s nearly 2-century-old “String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 “Razumovsky” the “most radical work of the night” (there I go quoting him). Focusing mostly on the first movement, Mr. Spence underlined Beethoven’s tactics of delay when it comes to melody and harmony.

Listening to Mr. Spence, Beethoven came across as impish as Mozart: The composer performs slight of hand for the Russian diplomat who commissioned the piece, instead of presenting the melody safely. Mr. Spence is also known for his hyperbole, especially if it can get a laugh. But it was hard not to see the end of the fourth movement, the Allegro “Théme russe,” as almost too much of a good thing, with four or five false endings. It’s as if Beethoven keeps looking over at Razumovsky and winking: “More, sir? Here you go.”

What Mr. Spence didn’t tell us about in advance, but let spring forth, is the beautiful center of the Third Movement, the “Adagio molto e mesto.”

One of Beethoven’s lushest, most swooning melodies, it gives a warm center to a quartet that is often jumpy and agitated, all of which was handled in a brisk, clean style by Mr. Wilkie, violin, Agnes Gottschewski, violin, Mr. McInnes, viola, and Mr. Walz on cello.

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