When British-American composer David Bruce accepted the commission from Carnegie Hall that resulted in the octet ‘Steampunk’ (2011), did he ever anticipate a chamber ensemble one day dressing the part? That’s exactly what happened Friday night. Of the many facets of Camerata Pacifica — here was one for the cheeky side. A dash of theater, a flash of spectacle, a lot of great music, and tons of fun.
In case you are as out of the loop, “steampunk” refers to a subculture and aesthetic, derived from a genre of fantasy fiction that combines punkish Goth-burlesque with Victorian-era romantic views of science and steam-era machines. Costumes included full flowing layered dresses for women, jacket bodices, and lace arm-sleeves; men’s wardrobe included bowlers, vests, boots, aviation goggles, wide ties, and tails. Both sexes had feather plumes, chains, and studded leather straps. Artistic director Adrian Spence sported mutton-chops, and a top hat with a spread of black wings, and played the role of vaudeville barker at the outset.
The Bruce piece opened the concert, and while not exactly Carl Stalling, passages in Steampunk race and leap in cartoonish ways—the first movement could accompany Keystone Cops. Instrumentation split four winds (Nicholas Daniel, Jose Franch-Ballester, Amy Harman, Martin Owen) and four strings (Kristin Lee, Morgan O’Shaughnessey, Ani Aznavoorian, Timothy Eckert). Steampunk preoccupation with clocks and trains is hinted at in the final two movements.
Tough counting continued with Stephen Hartke trio, The Horse with the Lavender Eye, featuring violinist Paul Huang, Jose Franch-Ballester on clarinet, and pianist Warren Jones. The last movement was a breathtaking deconstructed rhumba, with Latin piano fills.
Much of Velvet Hammer, a quintet by Sean Friar, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, drives forward with gear-like steady rhythm, and centers around electric guitar (Mak Grgić). The swirling interplay of flute (Spence) and clarinet (Franch-Ballester) was breath-taking, but the necessity and integration of the guitar was not convincing to me.
The concert ended by drawing from British composers who actually lived in Victorian England: Percy Grainger and Charles Villiers Stanford. Grainger’s Après un Rêve is a short romantic interlude for solo piano. With house lights down, Jones sat at the bench under a spot, removed his bowler and armband, and recited from memory the text to the original Gabriel Fauré song, a dreamer’s lament after awakening from a lovers’ rendezvous.
Stanford’s brilliant Serenade (Nonet) in F Major, Op. 95 proved why he was composition guru to Howells and Holst—seamless, spontaneous fertility of ideas, and masterful grasp of orchestration. Blazing color, vibrant flourishes, and breath-taking transformations were rendered beautifully and skillfully by the Camerata players. And as I watched the costumed ensemble, playing instruments that have not changed much since the 19th century and before—Owen’s horn with its valves and winding tubes; Harmon’s bassoon with its keys and levers; the necks and tapered bodies of the strings—I was reminded of an outrageous suggestion by Bruce: classical music is itself a kind of steampunk, with its retro-mechanical acoustics. Bring on the steam calliope, and I’ll really believe it.