At Camerata Pacifica’s inauguration of its 23rd season at Zipper Hall last Thursday, audiences were welcomed not with a tepid, toe-dip into the musical waters, easing some of their listeners into the organization’s always lively programming. Rather, artistic director Adrian Spence and friends cheerfully dunked their audience into an aural experience that was a bubbling cauldron of expression and musical styles that swirled in dizzying array.
Henri Tomasi’s 1959 “Five Profane and Sacred Dances” for wind quintet opened the proceedings with a statement at once brusque and breezy. Bitonality and polyrhythms that were employed by Milhaud and Poulenc to express joy in the frivolity and promise of the 20th century acquire a harder – and jaded – tone in Tomasi’s voice. Darkness of color and expression – one thinks of the mournful third movement and its ghoulishly eerie French horn solo – unthinkable to his Les six predecessors (Honegger excepted) breathes unseen yet all the more menacingly through the score, stalking the listener with an unrelenting pace until a crazed clarinet smear closes the work.
The uneasy relations between humor and pain were explored further in Luciano Berio’s “Opus Number Zoo” for wind quintet. An early work from the composer better known for the Joycean maelstrom of his “Sinfonia” and the austere sonic questing of the “Sequenza” pieces, “Opus Number Zoo” mixes theater with music, not altogether convincingly. The music itself has the kind of light touch one would imagine a 20th century Bizet wielding. But the composer tethered his music to insipid, would-be clever writings of Rhoda Levine. In four movements where the musicians recite her words to Berio’s musical accompaniment, Levine’s fables purport to reflect the human condition through the concave mirror of a funhouse. Instead they lumber about with the elephantine obviousness of Godzilla tearing through Tokyo – except that Godzilla is actually entertaining. Levine, on the other hand, is just unfunny and annoying. Still, the Camerata Pacifica players roused a properly madcap performance as fine as one can ever hope to hear.
Continuing the thread of music-drama, but seemingly emerging from a completely different world was “In Other Words: Concerto for Viola and Chamber Ensemble” by the Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo. Part of a series of works where the composer has attempted to fuse drama with music, the concerto is dedicated to Camerata Pacifica violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill.
Lasting just under 30 minutes, Ruo’s “In Other Words” has the violist-protagonist vocalize in what the composer calls a “newly created language that no one has heard or spoken before.” The language of the music itself, at least, is more recognizable with echoes of Takemitsu, Tan Dun, and Ligeti never too far away, though with its focus on a horizontal musical discourse, distinctly Chinese.
What drama its three movements are intended to depict was left unexplained by the composer. But they could be said to represent states of stasis, motion and conflict in the central movement, and resignation in the finale. Though not an obvious virtuoso vehicle – there are no flashy cadenzas and juicy melodies for the soloist to exploit – it is a work that requires a demandingly high degree of technical polish. This Richard Yongjae O’Neill possesses and more. No less strenuous are the demands Ruo makes on the ensemble, including having the clarinetist and oboist play their instruments sideways like flutes.
Yet the music seems vitally dependent on what is seen on stage – and vice-versa – making the piece difficult to sum up. Solely as a musical experience it has moments of interest, yet long periods where little seizes the ear aside from the groaning of a drone bass and slow ostinati played double or triple-stopped on the viola.
The drama, as such, is also of an ephemeral, hard-to-define sort. The ultimate meaning of the chamber ensemble moving from the inner stage to the other fringes in the last movement, or covering their faces with fans, then fanning the soloist in the central movement, is presented without answer or context. What one ultimately faces is the possibility of the dramatic gestures operating as a kind of “music,” in that, like much music, it can be appreciated for its surface beauty, so can “drama.” In the end, the work doesn’t quite add up to something more than the sum of its various parts. Other composers have fleshed out the twilight region between music and theater more effectively. One thinks of the three very different approaches of Alfred Schnittke, Mauricio Kagel, and John Cage. Listening to (and watching) “In Other Words” feels more like a work-in-progress, a snapshot of a moment in the development of the artist. Fascinating and frustrating.
Ending the evening was a performance of Beethoven’s early “Septet” for winds and strings. Theirs was Beethoven not as the wiry-haired master of Bonn, but as a young man with a sensibility still capable of softness and a wry sense of fun. Camerata Pacifica players gave a rollicking kick to the fast movements while spinning dewy, melodic webs in the slower movements that had an almost Italianate glow.
A friendly farewell to an evening filled with the promise of another stellar Camera Pacifica season.