To call it a bookend would not be quite right; that would imply the completion of a volume, and for the fabulous chamber group Camerata Pacifica there appears to be no end in sight. You might call this past weekend’s all-Brandenburg concerti performance a recap, or reminiscence; but that would sound passively retrospective. The best word, really, is celebration. Closing the silver-anniversary season with a repetition of the initial program 25 years ago was ritual, of course, but there was nothing reflexive about it.
This performance of J.S. Bach’s six masterwork concerti was equal parts party and pageant. First of all, there were the sheer numbers: 19 musicians in one program is a bonanza for a chamber group whose monthly programs often feature a half-dozen or so. And then there was the variety inherent to the scoring—Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (concertos with several instruments)—in Bach’s words, which translated aurally and visually into a new stage tableau with every piece. Winds, which play such a dominant role in No. 1, for example, are absent from Nos. 3 and 6; and violins, which are typically as essential to a string ensemble as the top layer to a cake, are absent from No.6, leaving low register kinsmen violas, cellos and double bass. And in a notable exception to Camerata’s own custom, the musicians played standing (with the exceptions of cello, bassoon, and harpsichord), enhancing the dance feeling by liberating the musicians to step and sway. It was especially delightful to watch musician-conductors (like principal violist Richard O’Neill in No.6) traverse the borderland of dance as they cued fellow players.
New personnel to Camerata included world-class organist/harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon. Harpsichord plays a central role in the Brandenburgs, not only tonally but also rhythmically, with its silvery-edged attack. One of the show-stopping moments of the afternoon was Bordignon’s brilliant riffing of the long cadenza in Brandenburg No.5 with its spinning figures that can sound at moments like the revolving riffs of a rock guitar.
Reunion, too, was part of the celebration, with emeritus principal violinist Catherine Leonard returning for the occasion, displaying her flair and fervor especially in the closing piece, the violin-centered Concerto No.4. Another notable reunion was bassoonist John Steinmetz and flutist/artistic director Adrian Spence—the only two personnel who occupied the stage at the initial performance 25 years before (and many times since). Spence honored Steinmetz with a lifetime achievement award. He also honored patron Patrise Mercurio, who sponsored an early proto-Camerata Pacifica concert in 1990, with a framed souvenir poster from that event. Mercurio was one-time owner of Santa Barbara Futon, and employed Spence 25 years ago before the chamber music impresario was yet established.
Other notable epiphanies included the well-known virtuosic trumpet passages from Concerto No.2 played—on horn—by English hornist Martin Owen; and the poetic Adagio from Concerto No. 1 played with beautifully aching melancholy by oboist Nicholas Daniel. But the over-arching wonder was the timeless imagination of J.S. Bach himself, and evident reverence that all of these exceptional musicians cherish for this body of work, handled with such zest and savor at every turn. Clearly they don’t take for granted the rarified opportunities for music-making that Camerata Pacifica provides, even while gauging themselves for the next quarter of a century. Concert roster also included: Priya Mitchell and Agnes Gottschewski, violins; Jonathan Moerschel and Matthew Cohen, violas; Ani Aznavoorian, Raman Ramakrishnan and Andrew Janss, cellos; Brent Hages and Evan Sanchez, oboes; Steve Becknell, horn; Melanie Lançon, flute; and Tim Eckert, double bass.
It is no small accomplishment to found and sustain a classical music ensemble in this culture and economy. It is a miraculous feat to grow an organization that consistently attracts some of the finest musicians and composers in the world. And so stands the first quarter-century of Camerata Pacifica and its visionary founder.