Camerata Pacifica exhilarated and astonished a capacity audience at Hahn Hall on Friday night. One of several Camerata Pacifica performances being shot on video for future broadcast by KCET, Los Angeles, this was a diverse program of nearly all 20th century music that was mostly threaded on a 19th century reed, as Claude Debussy’s Syrinx provided the background for the entire first half. Camerata artistic director Adrian Spence began the concert by playing Debussy’s iconic piece for unaccompanied flute from backstage, its haunting melody falling on the ears in dreamy indirection. The sequence of duets and solos that followed was then interlaced with three of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s extrapolations on Syrinx.
Ovid’s account of the origin of the Pan pipes tells of the earthy Pan’s pursuit of the ever-chaste and unattainable nymph, Syrinx. When she finally falls within his grasp, her body is transformed into a strand of reeds. Pan cuts and binds these reeds, and forever after plays the sad strains of unrequited love. The signature phrase of Debussy’s Syrinx (like the theme from Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) suggests a descending breath across just such chromatic pipes. All three of Bennett’s works begin with that phrase, before venturing beyond the key area in tonal and rhythmic restlessness. Two have the ambiguous title After Syrinx (I & II), which might be read ‘in pursuit of’ as much as ‘later’.
The centerpiece of the first half was Iannis Xenakis’ Dmaathen, a demanding duet for oboe and percussion. Oboist extraordinaire, Nicholas Daniel, drew upon curdling multiphonics and circular breathing to elicit atonal cries and calls, while Ji Hye Jung deftly worked a complex of gong, congas, marimba and bass drum that enclosed her on three sides. The raw climaxes of Dmaathen were wild in thunder and double-reed shriek. Toru Takemitsu’s Towards the Sea was, by contrast, a poem of silences in consonant tonality. This mellow pairing of alto flute and marimba contrasts wind and percussion, but also reveals surprisingly similar tubular resonances. Spence’s long tones were waves swelling out from inaudible nothingness. Pianist Adam Neiman was articulate throughout the Bennett pieces, the complex time rippling through his arms, terminating in sudden treble key grabs. The entire set of duets and solos was played like a series of movements, without intervening applause, entrances or exits. The four musicians remained visibly on stage throughout; which means there were always at least two, and sometimes three people onstage simply listening.
This had the effect of blurring slightly the audience/performer distinction. But more, this peer listening had a dynamic presence, just as a rest in music is not passive, but has positive being. After nearly an hour, the first half was lauded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor was the sole work on the second half of the program. The three principal Camerata strings (Catherine Leonard, violin; Richard Yongjae O’Neill, viola; Ani Aznavoorian, cello) took the stage, joined by violinist Ara Gregorian and Adam Neiman on piano. Consummate musicianship and unity animated the varied colors and contours of this well-loved work.