It could not have been a mere fluke. Surely a year and a half ago, while crafting his 2014-15 program, Camerata Pacifica artistic director Adrian Spence was consulting an astrologer when he happened upon the peculiar coincidence of 2015’s vernal equinox with the new moon. This was not any new moon, mind you, but one that would cast the shadow of a total solar eclipse over all of Europe, North Africa, and Northern Asia. And so was conceived last week’s splendid program of night-inspired and night-associated music. Included were popular wonders like Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, which acquired its association with moonlight only after his death, and Debussy’s Clair de lune (“light of the moon”), as well as works by American composer Arthur Foote and Irishman John Field. Like the sun emerging from eclipse, the program ended with a blazing performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s unusual sextet, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”).
A nocturne is a romantic or fantastic — though sometimes gloomy — work, usually in one movement. Just as a night stroll liberates the mind from the hard edges that define the visual day, so the nocturne is a refuge of liberty, informality, and intimacy. This feeling was apparent from the start of Friday’s concert, with a wonderful pairing of lesser-known quintets. Arthur Foote’s flute quintet Nocturne & Scherzo opened with the flute (played by Spence) leading a series of plaintive statements, the strings filled in each time with murmurs and echoes. The Camerata Pacifica musicians moved together beautifully, communicating the undulating, almost swirling sensation that Foote’s Nocturne magically suggests. First violin then took over for the flute, and the audience was treated to the bright tone and lyricism of Camerata newcomer Kristin Lee. The Korean-American musician was honored just two days earlier in New York City with an Avery Fisher Career Grant, an annual award given, under the auspices of Lincoln Center, to promising American classical musicians. In a delicious coup for Camerata Pacifica, violinist Paul Huang (who was not playing at this concert) was also among the five winners this year. That was a “40% representation for Camerata Pacifica,” crowed Spence in his comments from the stage. Spence and Lee shared the stage with Camerata familiars Richard Yongjae O’Neill, viola, Ani Aznavoorian, cello, and Erik Arvinder, violin — who debuted with the chamber ensemble last season.
No program of nocturnes would be complete without a work by John Field. The Irish pianist and composer influenced great pianist-composers like Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt, and has been labeled “the father of the nocturne.” Liszt himself published an edition of Field’s nocturnes, introduced with airy praise for the Irish composer’s twilight imagination: “None have quite attained to these vague Aeolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy.” Two more Camerata newcomers took the stage: pianist Gloria Chien and cellist Ole Akahoshi, who joined Lee, Arvinder and O’Neill for Field’s Piano Quintet in A-Flat Major.
The weight of pianist Chien’s debut, however, really centered on two solo works that fell mid-program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. If your ears have been steeled by Jonathan Biss’s and András Schiff’s muscular renditions of Beethoven, as this reviewer’s ears have, then Chien’s approach seems softer, more feminine, which worked wonderfully with her beautifully pensive, meditative performance of the iconic first movement, the mantra of arpeggios struggling to name a nameless grief. Chien has all the technical prowess to articulate this difficult work, but I found myself pining for a sharper kick and more severe dramatic contrast when it came to the closing Presto agitato. But I seem to have been nearly alone, because Chien’s Beethoven was rewarded with a rare mid-concert standing ovation.
After the intermission, Chien demonstrated her conversance with the impressionistic palette, playing a charming and alluring rendition of the Debussy. The pianist displayed a wonderful fluidity in the Menuet, with even-handed flourishes and ornaments. The iconic Clair de lune was especially spacious and magical, the low tones sounding and the stars glittering high in restatement.
Finally the concert climaxed with Schoenberg’s string sextet, Verklärte Nacht, peculiarly arranged for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. This early work (the composer was just 25) absolutely bursts with imagination and fantasy, sophisticated harmony, and a feeling of utter spontaneity. “Transfigured Night” is based upon, and follows closely the dramatic form of a narrative poem by German writer Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), which describes a woman’s confession of a dark secret, her lover’s forgiveness, and the night thus transformed for them both. Lee, Arvinder, O’Neill, Aznavoorian, and Akahoshi were joined by violist Ara Gregorian to perform this rare work live. Spence briefly took the stage at the start to recite a translation of Dehmel’s words, before the strings launched into a dense, half-hour masterpiece. As one observer said after the concert, it is hard to imagine anything sadder than the relentless racks of grief that press the early and middle sections. The work is complex, too, with sudden interruptions, pauses, and then floods of feeling. It takes highly skilled and sensitive artists to pull this one off, and by the time Schoenberg finally granted us ‘the major lift’ (to quote Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) we were all ready to see the night differently. “See how brightly the universe is gleaming… a special warmth flickers from you into me, from me into you,” reads the Dehmel poem as the spirit is lifted. That’s what music making is all about.