Camerata Pacifica Delivers a Musical Valentine at the Huntington Library


Lovers of romance and music converged at the Huntington Library on Tuesday night for a Valentine’s Day concert by Camerata Pacifica. In its second concert of its 22nd season, this was a winning date with a thoughtful program of music that was capped by fine catered food, and the handsome surroundings of the Huntington on a starry, if chilly, night.

Romance of the steamy kind was the keystone for the “Variations for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano” from 1982 by John Harbison. Finding the inspiration for this work in a statue of a Canaanite fertility goddess he had once seen, Harbison assembled a kaleidoscopic piece that pulsates with a fragrant chromaticism and frantic, pounding rhythms. But there were also moments of quiet beauty and repose, such as the second variation for piano solo, or the ethereal coda of the work’s “Epilogue.” José Franch-Ballester (clarinet), Catherine Leonard (violin), and Warren Jones (piano) spoke the composer’s language with all the fluency of a native speaker; a superb performance.

Bright Sheng’s “Seven Tunes Heard in China” had cellist Ani Aznavoorian taking up the spotlight all to herself. Composed for Yo-Yo Ma, Sheng takes seven different folk melodies (four from China; one each from Taiwan, Mongolia, and Tibet) and arranged them for solo cello. His arrangements often invoke the sound of traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu and pipa. The composer even calls on the soloist to vocalize an imitation of a gong at the end of one of the movements.

Despite these colorful touches, the score, at least to these ears, seemed never to shake off the impression of being nothing more than a set of musical picture postcard exotica that doesn’t really develop its material fully. One searched in vain for the kind of daring and seamless blending of east and west that one finds in the works of Toru Takemitsu. Nevertheless, Aznavoorian played the work with total commitment, surmounting with grace and wit the score’s many technical challenges, and earning the audience’s very warm applause.

Following the intermission was one of Robert Schumann’s loveliest works from his late period: the “Fairy Tale Pictures for Viola and Piano.” Few compositions have been more derided than the body of work from Schumann’s final years. Though dogged with aural hallucinations and generally deteriorating mental health in this final period, the works he composed during this period are among the finest he ever penned. Lucid yet introspective, and often unexpectedly quirky in the manner of Beethoven’s late music, Schumann’s late works have unfortunately been subject to much misunderstanding. His close friend Johannes Brahms dismissed the music of this period as the product of a sick mind; his wife, Clara went further and actively suppressed this music, even destroying several works. Fortunately for music, these Fairy Tale Pictures were spared that ignoble fate.

Comprising four movements that total just under 15 minutes, this suite showcases some of the best of Schumann’s duality of personality, the passionate rebel and the dreamer – or as he anthropomorphized them, Florestan and Eusebius. The slow movement that closes the work ranks alongside the composer’s most beautiful creations; a marvel of musical sublimity.

Had a musician of the temperament and quality of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill been alive during Schumann’s day to champion the composer’s late music, history may very well have looked upon this period of the composer’s output more positively. So persuasive was Yongjae O’Neill, so unerring were his musical instincts. This was open hearted, deeply expressive playing, musical Romanticism at its finest. Matching him note for note was pianist Jones, whose bronzed tone and finely nuanced shading were a joy to hear. This was a performance to treasure and savor in the memory again and again.
Ending the program was Beethoven’s “Gassenhauer Trio” for clarinet, cello, and piano. A sparkling musical chip from the composer’s 28th year, it proved to be a superb way to bring down the curtain on the evening. Ballester, Aznavoorian and Jones were the superb players here. They played with winsome songfulness in the work’s central Adagio, but also were attuned to the humor in the finale, playing Beethoven’s rough hewn wit to the hilt.
Now this was a valentine one could really enjoy. This was a banquet far more satisfying than any box of chocolates could ever be – and gorging here will happily be of no detriment to one’s waistline.

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