At the heart of this essentially avant-garde season opener was a newly commissioned viola concerto, In Other Words, by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo, written especially for Camerata Pacifica’s Richard Yongjae O’Neill. Huang, whose “drama theater” approach to composition includes elements of acting and movement, is not unknown to CamPac patrons. The 2009 performance of To the Four Corners and the 2011 premiere of Book of the Forgotten for Oboe and Viola were both program milestones.
The evening began with two 20th-century works for wind quintet that primed audience sensibilities for the unexpected. Henri Tomasi’s Cinq Danses Profanes et Sacrées is a masterpiece of French Modern imagination, delightful in its varying moods and harmonic sophistication. Luciano Berio’s cheeky Opus Number Zoo illustrates four short animal fables by requiring the wind players to both tell the tale and accompany the recitation. This piece was performed with great verve, the poetic text sounding forth suddenly from one player to the next, often with cartoonish vocal characterizations. The dark antiwar subtext of The Fawn was all the more poignant for the childish context.
Huang seems to be the model 21st-century composer, diverse in output and borderless in inspiration. His “dimensionalism” (as he calls his compositional approach) imparts visual elements to music and regards performance as ceremony. Indeed, a ceremonial feeling was powerfully manifest Saturday, as O’Neill seemed to transform from concerto soloist to presiding priest, fully enraptured in his incantation. And this is no metaphor for viola playing: The first and third movements entailed extensive singing by O’Neill, often while simultaneously playing his instrument. For a man of slight stature, O’Neill possesses a surprisingly low voice, which he adapted effectively to the emotional and technical demands. Primitive syllables in rhythmic chant were reminiscent of Tibetan monks; high quavering tones sounded like Chinese folk music. There were not only rapid interval leaps into falsetto but also long bass sustains that required considerable breath capacity and control.
The supporting orchestra of strings, winds, and percussion stood (except cellist, of course) in a semicircle around the soloist for the first two movements. The score makes use of diverse ceremonial instruments such as the daf, or Persian hand drum, didgeridoo, Tibetan singing bowl, and the swinging bullroarer. There are unorthodox effects, too — the woodwind players at times blow bursts of air across the sound holes in the center of their instruments, producing terse percussive accents. The second movement, the longest of the three, features a relentless ostinato, hypnotic, like a Sufi trance. Here O’Neill did not sing but drove the music forward, sawing out the pulse in double-stops while his whole body danced. Each of the nine ensemble players, when tacet, made theatrical use of straw fans, sometimes shielding their faces like masks, sometimes fanning the soloist. The final movement scattered the orchestra around the perimeter of the hall, leaving only O’Neill and percussionist Ji Hye Jung onstage. In a gentle, almost mystical, contrast to the second movement, O’Neill sang a lyrical recitative, while the winds and strings filled the air, omnidirectionally, with long-tones of slow, surreal transfiguration. Only the singing bowl sounded at the close, before the hall erupted in applause, as a tearful O’Neill invited Huang to the stage for bows.
The challenge of programming a closing work after such a monumental event was met with a light diversion — Beethoven’s popular Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20.
This bold opening concert reminds us that avant-garde, at its best, is simply the leading edge of life itself, never wholly definable by the past. In Other Words joins an impressive and growing portfolio of Camerata commissions.