Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Un Concerto in Maschera

September 21, 2011

Adrian Spence and Vicki Ray en masque. Photo: David Bazemore/Camerata Pacifica 2011

One of the many reasons to love living in Southern California is that there is so much music everywhere you turn. I attend many more performances than most and I have to tell you that I often feel that I only begin to scratch the surface in getting to hear the superb musicians that play everywhere around town. Take Camerata Pacifica, one of the regions’ preeminent chamber music ensembles who kicked off their 22nd season over last weekend. The six member principal ensemble, including Artistic Director Adrian Spence, will play eight programs this season, each receiving five performances over a week-long period in four separate locations including Santa Barbara, Ventura, The Huntington Library in San Marino, and Zipper Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. This movable feast is repeatedly met with some of the most enthusiastic audiences you’ll find anywhere for classical music in these parts. What’s more, the ensemble, which is regularly joined by a wide array of guest musicians, has cultivated an adventurous audience that is interested in a wide variety of recent and contemporary chamber works that show up on Camerata Pacifica’s programs. This season alone will feature three works, including a world premiere, from Bright Sheng, as well as pieces from Elisabeth Lutyens, Peter Wiegold, John Harbison, Xenakis, Dohnányi, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Jake Heggie. There’s plenty of other music to enjoy as well, including Adam Neiman playing Liszt’s Transcendental Études in October.

Ji Hye Jung, Svet Stoyanov, and Michael Zell Photo: David Bazemore/Camerata Pacifica 2011

But before this, Tuesday brought the ensemble to The Huntington Library for a program structured around George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Steve Reich’s Sextet. Spence, as is his habit, took time to orient the audience at the start of the evening to the program explaining what to expect and listen for. The fist half of the program included three separate works played without interruption. Things began with the wonderful Los Angeles Philharmonic’s own Joanne Pearce Martin playing a Rachmaninoff Prelude as a brief introduction to Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. This is not Camerata Pacifica’s first time with this Crumb piece and Spence’s excitement for it was palpable. As the title suggests, the work references the musical elements of whale song in a set of variations that consider the breadth of time. Cellist Ani Aznavoorian, joined flautist Spence and Vicki Ray in dark blue lights and Crumb’s dictated masks for these other worldly noises created with extended playing techniques on all of the instruments. Crumb uses the masks and calls for amplification to create a sense of the expansive, non-human, spaciousness of the universe. The references to Messiaen are thick here from Crumb’s allusions to the music of animals in the natural world right down to the final movement of the piece, “Sea-Nocturne (…for the end of time).” And while Vox Balaenae has little in common with Messiaen musically, it does take off from similar cosmic starting points and the players gave a haunting, dark performance of it.

The first half concluded with the first of two works largely for percussion, Thierry De May’s Musique de Table. Building on the theatricality of Crumb’s journey to the sea, Ji Hye Jung, Svet Stoyanov, and Michael Zell sat at a long table and beat, slapped and pounded out rhythms using nothing more than the available furniture. The piece is tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time its highly choreographed movements have an intricacy that drew the audience in. This sort of intricate choreography is second nature for Steve Reich, and the percussionists were joined by a fourth, Douglas Perkins, as well as by Ray and Martin for the sort of bubbly urbanism one has come to expect from his music. This was visceral and exciting playing from the ensemble and provided an earthy counterpoint to the far-flung sea and sky of the opening set. But don’t take my word for it. You can find out more yourself on Thursday when the show makes it to Zipper Concert Hall downtown.


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