By Don Heckman
Camerata Pacifica, the Santa Barbara-based chamber ensemble that has been presenting high quality chamber music to Southland listeners for two decades, did it again Thursday night at Zipper Concert Hall in the Colburn School. Evolving well beyond their original Baroque focus as the Bach Camerata, they devoted a complete performance to the music of Mozart and Brahms.
In the opening half of the program, the trio of violinist Catharine Leonard, violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Ani Aznafoorian performed Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563, his only completed work for string trio. To simply call it a divertimento, however, almost seemed absurd from the first moments of the opening allegro. Written in 1778, the same year Mozart composed his Piano Concerto No. 26 (“Coronation”) and his last three symphonies, it overflowed with the same rich blend of emotional intensity and complex musical development present in those larger works.
The performance by Leonard, O’Neill and Aznafoorian was extraordinary. The six movements – typical of the divertimenti structure – made rigorous technical demands of the players: fleet, 32nd note passages contrasting with soaring lyricism; stunningly close-woven interaction, often at blindingly fleet speeds; and dark-timbred, moving harmonies calling for precise pitch placement.
The trio did all that and more. And what may have been most engaging about the performance was the sense of sheer life they brought to their interpretation – delivering the fast passages with a buoyant, almost – dare I say it – foot-tapping sense of rhythmic propulsion. At its best this was a presentation that allowed the listeners to see into the deep, inner heart of Mozart’s extraordinary musical mind.
The Camerata Pacifica’s pianist, Warren Jones, opened the second half of the program with Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117. Described by the composer as “lullabies to my sorrow,” they were inspired by a Scottish poem in German philosopher/poet Johann Gottfried Herder’s Volkslieder. Introspective and spare, for the most part, they call for a touch that finds the sensitivity in the deceptively simple harmonies, as well as the inner turbulence in the rare forte moments. Jones was well-fit for the task, his interpretive stoicism matching the work’s tendency toward emotional detachment.
Jones was joined by clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester for the final piece on the program, Brahms’ Sonata in F Minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 1. Performed with easy compatibility between the two players, it was an accurate, if not especially invigorating rendering of a work in which Brahms seemed to be searching for melodies that never quite reached fruition. In the Andante 2nd Movement, the place where a Mozart – or even a Brahms, in his other clarinet works – found melodic gold, this sonata offered little more than a few appealing long tones. But it’s worth noting that Franch-Ballester, a young Spaniard, played with exquisite sound and fluent articulation. One looks forward to hearing him perform some of the larger, more musically expressive works of the clarinet literature.