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

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

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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