The world premiere of Bright Sheng’s “Hot Pepper” for marimba and violin was just one of many highlights in this stellar opening concert of the Camerata Pacifica season. Ji Hye Jung, the percussionist who captivated the audience in last season’s performance of Huang Ruo’s “To the Four Corners” was back, and she and her marimba dominated the first half of the evening, casting a mallet-driven spell of the utmost musicality. “Hot Pepper” was first, and Sheng was present to introduce his work, which was commissioned by Camerata subscriber Bob Peirce. Sheng said that it was called “Hot Pepper” because it was based on Szechuan folk tunes, and that he had written a full orchestral concerto for marimba two years ago, so he was familiar with the compositional issues raised by the instrument. When violinist Catherine Leonard joined Jung onstage for the approximately 10-minute piece, it became apparent immediately that Sheng’s feeling for this combination of instruments is something special. After a very delicate, attenuated finish to the first of its two movements, the second revealed a powerhouse of full-bodied chords from the violin and rippling, piano-like arpeggios from the marimba.
Following the rapturous reception of this world premiere would seem a daunting task, but with cellist Ani Aznavoorian ready to join Jung for a second duet, the program just kept humming along, this time with a beautifully romantic elegy by Osvaldo Golijov. It’s possible that the sonorities of the cello are even better suited to the marimba than those of the violin, and the musicians took full advantage of this sensuous affinity.
Not one to be left out of anything so musically seductive, Adrian Spence came onstage next bearing his flute, and he and Jung played her startling and beautiful transcription of Bach’s Sonata in A Major, BWV 1032. The final piece of the first half was a solo for marimba by Joseph Schwantner called “Velocities.” It’s a showstopper, and with the marimba pivoted so that it faced squarely out toward the audience, it was easier to observe the grace with which Jung dances about behind her instrument.
After the break, the audience was treated to more traditional fare, but there was nothing ordinary about it. It could have been some inside Dvor-joke, but it was more likely the sheer pleasure of making chamber music at the absolute highest level with Aznavoorian and Leonard that brought such a broad smile to pianist Warren Jones’s face.