Camerata Pacifica | Credit: Timothy Norris

In the beginning was the Bach Camerata, an intrepid new chamber music group founded by flutist and dogged, eloquent classical music entrepreneur Adrian Spence. The group performed at the Lobero and other venues, but soon morphed into the more broadly-defined — and oceanic-aligned — moniker, Camerata Pacifica, whose 34th season is coming soon to a Southern California venue near you. For Santa Barbarans, that musical home is Hahn Hall at the Music Academy, launching locally with a meat-and-potatoes program of Beethoven, Mozart and Elgar, on Friday, September 15.

Adrian Spence, Camerata Pacifica Artistic Director | Credit: Courtesy

Camerata Pacifica evolved into one of the sturdier, and artistically flexible, classical organisms in Southern California, with world-class musicians on board, monthly concerts at the Music Academy as well as Ventura, Pasadena, and downtown Los Angeles (Zipper Hall). Despite the Bach alliance of the group’s salad days, Spence’s programming purview has always entailed a wide berth, from Baroque to romantic fare, to modernist and contemporary repertoire, and to ink-still-wet world premieres.

This season’s hallmarks include the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s accordion-featuring new work and the U.S. premiere of Martin Butler’s Remember this Fire. Bach continues to be a presence in the group’s DNA, expanded this season with the commencement of a new period instrument sub-series Camerata Pacifica Baroque. On the organizational side, this marks the first season with Ana Papakhian — long centrally associated with the Music Academy in a resume extending back more than a quarter century — on board as executive director.

We recently caught up with Spence, then on his end-of-summer travels, tooling around Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania via motorcycle. As a greeting, he offered, “aitäh — thanks. One of the four words of Estonian I’ve learned, the others being ‘hello,’ ‘please’ and ‘beer.’ Then I discovered it’s a completely different language in Latvia. And Lithuania.” 

Once back in SoCal, it will be very much back to Bach and other Camerata business for Spence.

To pose a broad question up front: do you have particular views or overviews of this coming 34th season of your adventurous project?   

It’s the 34th step of a long journey that began in 1990, dedicated to the art, reflective of our time. In 2023, this wonderful music has spread around the world, and the music and musicians of this Camerata season are a snapshot of this time. The intention is for another 34 steps, and beyond.

Arriving at a season’s program, especially one juggling diverse eras and styles, world premieres, and moving parts amongst musicians, must be a complex task. Was it achieved with your usual attention paid to checks and balances?

Thanks for the nice words — aitäh.

There are always programs or musical mixes in my head eager to make it to the stage. I particularly enjoy the discovery of an emotional connection, sometimes manufactured I’ll confess, between what on the face of it appear to be incompatible pieces. A fundamental for me is, although the language of music has changed over 300 years, the subject for expression, the emotions, have not — that provides connections to be revealed.

There’s the inspiration from our wonderful musicians which influences the direction of a program and then there’s our audience — the most critical element. So, checks and balances, yes. I can be as esoterically creative as I’d like, but if I can’t bring people along with me that rather defeats the fundamental purpose of a performing arts group.

Having said that, I won’t pander to an audience — which, over three-and-a-half decades has stood us in good stead. It is a privilege for us, performers and listeners, to be associated with this music.

You responded resourcefully to the strictures of life under COVID’s reign, unveiling some deep archives and otherwise keeping up an organizational presence, if remotely. Do you feel that with this 2023-24 season, the pandemic period has yielded to a more life-as-normal condition, or is there yet ground to cover in terms of getting back to business?

Normal is so yesterday.

Ana Papakhian, Camerata Pacifica Executive Director | Credit: Courtesy

The effects of the pandemic continue to be keenly felt and will be for years to come, and we’ll see many groups fail. These challenges also bring wonderful opportunities. Those groups who cling to the notion of a return to normality won’t do well. At the Camerata we see a significant portion of our pre-pandemic audience have not returned, however that opens up seats to welcome new friends, who represent different demographics — a phenomenon we’re observing. For many groups, it has also allowed us to reset creatively, something long overdue.

Ana Papakhian is joining the organization as Executive Director this season. How did that connection come together, and what do you both hope to achieve through her involvement?

Ana and I have known each other for nearly a decade. I’ve admired her that whole time and when circumstances presented the opportunity to work together I leapt at it. There are no specific goals at this moment, as she’s just started. The vision for Camerata Pacifica is clear and Ana brings a whole new set of skills and her own perspective. I’m very excited to develop our next steps with Ana as an executive partner.

Premieres have become a regular feature of the Camerata’s life through the years. Can you say how many world premieres the group has in its library by now? Do you have any plans to record those pieces?

As I’m in Lithuania now, I’ll have Ana check on that number — it must be over 20, many of which are on our YouTube channel. In process are commissions by Niloufar Nourbakhsh and David Bruce.

As an accordion fan and fan of new music generally, I’m excited to hear about the new piece by Clarice Assad. What can you tell me about that work?

You’re the accordion fan? I came across the accordion as a “classical” instrument about a decade ago and sought to use it in my programming, it just took this long. I met Julian [Labro, accordionist] about five years ago, first hearing him live in Dizzy’s Club in New York. And he can play Scarlatti  —  that was epiphanic.

I’ve been aware of Clarice for a long time, and this project seemed perfect — her facility across genres, her Brazilian/American background, fit right into Camerata Pacifica’s vision of “classical” music for the 21st century.

Julian Labro, accordionist | Credit: Courtesy

I read that the visual elements of concert presentation will be a part of the performances: is that something you are increasingly interested in, alongside streaming, video elements, and other extra-musical and digital aspects?

It absolutely is. Beethoven and Mozart adapted to the technological advances of their day — the piano for instance – we should embrace every opportunity to make our music, today’s music, as compelling and musically expressive as possible. Commissioning these days, I’m asking composers to consider integration of these technical resources. (Streaming is something we use with The Nightingale Channel, an initiative delivering programming to hospital patients.)

You have always been good about making the concert experience more accessible and even interactive, which partly accounts for your large and devoted audiences. You were involved in that process of making classical music more engaging for diehards and dabblers alike, before that became a more general trend in classical music. Does that remain a passionate concern for you?

Isn’t that the definition of running a performing arts group? Isn’t that the reason for existence? We are, all of us, stewards of this incredible artform, and have a responsibility to hand it to the next generation better than when we received it.

“Accessibility” is a buzzword, and what does it actually mean? Free champagne? Dumbing down the music? Compromising the product? I’ve never been an apologist for this music — we all know how wonderful it is, and I’m more than happy to share it with you and make it easy for you to come to a performance. However, at the Camerata we treat intelligent people intelligently, and we expect you to commit to listening. If that’s not for you, then we’re not for you.

Here’s another startling concept … Instead of free drinks or whatever the latest incentivizing trend is, what about we simply make the concert experience so compelling, so engaging, that audiences will want to return? Radical idea.

See for more information about the season.


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