For Camerata Pacifica’s Friday-evening concert this month, April showers brought lotus flowers and a phoenix—not to mention horn and marimba. The evening began with Catherine Leonard (violin) and Ji Hye Jung (marimba), playing “Hot Pepper,” a commissioned piece the pair debuted in 2010. Although Tabasco sauce is aged for three years, and this “Hot Pepper” has been in the bottle for only two, composer Bright Sheng’s recipe nevertheless tastes just right. The flavor and body are now deliciously complex and instinctive. Leonard’s forward musical finesse grabbed hold of the audience immediately with the work’s aching Chinese folk melody, its high harmonics bending like silk. Jung hummed with her multi-mallet magic, beginning like undulating water but finishing with lightning strikes.
Next came Eric Ewazen’s trio for flute (Adrian Spence), horn (Steve Becknell), and piano (Adam Neiman), which carried the vistas and drama of an adventure-film score. But the night’s biggest imaginative journey came in the world premiere of Sheng’s new work for quartet, Melodies of a Flute, for which Ani Aznavoorian (cello) and Spence (concert and alto flutes) joined Leonard and Jung. The first movement, “Flute and Phoenix,” is arresting in its contrasts—rapid patterns in flute and marimba unexpectedly drop out, leaving the ear suspended among sonorous long tones of violin and cello. The second movement, “Lotus Flowers,” is all energetic time and trills. The 11th-century love poem on which this second movement is based, ostensibly about a boat race, is said to convey a veiled reference to physical love.
Finally, the Sextet in C Major, Op. 37 (1935) by Hungarian composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnányi combines a traditional piano quartet, in which violist Paul Coletti joined Neiman, Leonard, and Aznavoorian, with a clarinet (Bil Jackson) and horn (Becknell). This extended composition is an epic masterpiece, richly Brahmsian in its early developments, and madly playful, even cheeky, in its final giocoso movement. Enthusiasm blew in gusts through the players, and, after Dohnányi’s false ending bumped us all with a laugh, jubilant applause thanked these unsurpassed artists.