Sonic Exploration and Formal Tradition Meet at Camerata Pacifica


If there was a single thing that defined 20th century music, it was that there wasn’t a single thing that defined it. That is to say that under the rubric of “20th century music” there thrived and spawned literally hundreds of genres, styles, and schools, each as distinctive from the other as could be.

The 20th century was perhaps the most volatile century in human history and the trajectory of its musical development reflects that amply. On one hand, you had composers who had felt that the traditional Austro-German forms had been completely exhausted and that they held little relevance for the modern listener. On the other, you had composers who still believed in traditional forms, investing them with a modern sensibility but refusing to burn the bridges to the past.

It was this wide chasm that Camerata Pacifica had to walk across in its program at the Huntington Library on Tuesday, March 6. The music of Claude Debussy, Richard Rodney Bennett, Yannis Xenakis and Toru Takemitsu sitting on one end of the ring with Dmitri Shostakovich sitting on the other was definitely a bit of inspired, if very unorthodox programming. But what made this program work was the very boldness of its presentation. “This is the 20th century – it is what it is,” Camerata Pacifica seemed to say.

“Pleasure is the only law,” Debussy once responded to a critic who questioned his flaunting of formal tradition. This principle was the guiding force for the composers on the program’s first half, which Adrian Spence, Camerata Pacifica’s artistic director and principal flautist, described as portraying the “limitless possibilities of wind colors.”

The inspiration for the first half – quite literally in the case of the Bennett works that followed – was Debussy’s late “Syrinx” for solo flute. Originally composed as a piece of incidental music for an unfinished play,

“Psyché” by Gabriel Mourey, it has become one, if not the, core work in the solo flautist’s repertoire. Spence played the Debussy with a coaxing sense of sensuality and a fine ear for the work’s telling silences.

Following immediately and interspersed in between other composers were Bennett’s tributes to Debussy’s piece: “After Syrinx I,” “After Syrinx II,” and “Tango After Syrinx.” Part of a series of works from the 1980s in which Bennett muses on aspects of Debussy’s “Syrinx,” Camerata Pacifica performed all but two of the series on Tuesday’s program. Standing like pillars among the Bennett pieces were “Dmaathen” by Xenakis and “Towards the Sea” by Takemitsu.

For those who think atonal or avant-garde music is difficult, if not unpleasant, listening, give Camerata Pacifica a chance to immediately disabuse you of that notion. The pieces by Debussy, Takemitsu, and Bennett were played with sweet, honeyed tone. Especially impressive was the aromatic atonality of the Bennett pieces, which were matched by equally beautiful playing from oboist Nicholas Daniel, pianist Adam Neiman and percussionist Ji Hye Jung. The real surprise – and showstopper – of the evening was the Xenakis work.

Xenakis’ dense and incredibly complex language can pose a challenge to even the most dedicated fan of the mid-20th century avant-garde. But Daniel and Jung not only met the work’s excruciating challenges, but kicked them underfoot with passionate and vibrant playing that immediately seized the listener. Is Xenakis really such an enjoyable composer to listen to after all? It’s certainly so when you have musicians of the caliber of Daniel and Jung serving as the composer’s energetic promoters.

When the ride finally came to an end nearly 15 minutes later, you simply wanted to jump back on and hear it all over again.

But with the excesses of modernism also come the contrasting calls for restraint. Stravinsky’s turn “back to Bach” and Hindemith’s and Prokofieff’s calls for music that was clear and easily understandable to mass audiences was just as important and worthy a trend in the 20th century as modernism was. No better example could have been used for Camerata Pacifica’s program than the classically balanced “Piano Quintet in G Minor” from 1940 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Adhering to classical form doesn’t mean that the music has to be dry and pedantic, which is never the case with Shostakovich. His first major chamber work, Shostakovich’s quintet surges with dramatic vitality as the thundering, Bachian chords and counterpoint announce at the opening of the piece.

Returning was pianist Neiman with Catherine Leonard (1st violin), Ara Gregorian (2nd violin), Richard Yongjae O’Neill (viola) and Ani Aznavoorian (cello). Their performance stressed the work’s neo-classical grace, trusting that the musical dramatics would handle themselves. It was definitely a different take on the Shostakovich quintet, but not an unpleasant one. For once this sounded like intimate chamber music, not the quasi-symphonic utterance it usually is in other hands. The manic scherzo was less acidic, more bubbly and brilliant. Charm and grace also marked the finale. Though the Camerata Pacifica musicians also knew when to emote, bringing a teeth-gnashing intensity to the climax of the Intermezzo.

At the beginning of the concert, Adrian Spence had mentioned how Tuesday night’s program was his favorite this season. I couldn’t agree more.