Camerata Pacifica’s April Concert

At Victoria Hall Theater, Friday, April 7.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Two unusual and overtly confrontational pieces in the first half of this concert — by Alfred Schnittke and William Bolcom — set the stage for a marvelously warm, if not exactly relaxed Shostakovich cello sonata in the second. Psychologically and, in the case of the Bolcom, chronologically, the evening harkened back to the 20-year era of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union known as détente, when the Cold War melted a little around the edges.

Schnittke, like Shostakovich, lived in the shadow of Stalin. His melancholy, wrenchingly dissonant version of the familiar Christmas carol “Silent Night” opened the program, with Benny Kim on violin and Joanne Pearce Martin at the piano. The gesture, in which a standard with very specific ideological content is turned inside out through the emotionally charged distortion of crucial resolutions, is as familiar as Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Benny Kim’s considerable gravitas and exemplary technique put what could have been a mere musical joke firmly over as serious art. The result was an exercise in listening, not only to the music itself, but also to the real “Silent Night” that hearing the piece inevitably evokes in your mind.

Bolcom’s Quartet for Piano and Strings was written in 1976 as a bicentennial reflection on American violence. The stormy opening barcarole is heavily influenced by the ketjak or “monkey chant” of the Balinese gamelan, a musical, theatrical, and ritual performance involving 200 or more men seated in tight concentric circles. Like the Bolcom Quartet, the so-called “monkey chant” is a percussive representation of violence, in this case the commemoration of an ancient battle. In the intermezzo, the Bolcom piece modulates dramatically toward the African-American spiritual tradition, becoming indistinguishable for many minutes from elegant popular music. The implicit story here, of redemption through violence, is a very fitting one given the historical context. The audience was quite divided over the appeal of this selection.

Cellist Eric Kim performed with incandescent musicality in his rendering of the Shostakovich Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, Opus 40. Written in 1934, when Stalin first began to criticize Shostakovich for “bourgeois tendencies,” the piece is fraught with deliberately mixed messages. After the heavy-handed distortions of Schnittke and Bolcom, this piece revealed a richness and warmth transcending its occasional formal reticence. In contrast to the Bolcom, where the accessibility of the intermezzo came off as a gimmick, the meditative largo of this sonata felt fully integrated and was deeply moving. This evening was a real triumph of imaginative, even argumentative programming, and of the absolute highest order of musical expression.

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