Review: Violinist Paul Huang Helps Launch Camerata Pacifica's 34th Season

September 19, 2023, 1:19 PM · Once again, I walked away from a Camerata Pacifica concert thinking, "Wow, they know how to put on a classical show." Or I might use other words, "Wow, they know how to curate an extremely high-quality musical experience." Because somehow this concert managed to feel both down-to-earth and totally first-class, all at the same time.

Founded 34 years ago by Adrian Spence, Camerata Pacifica is a Southern California-based chamber series that puts on one show a month at four different venues during the season. Last Wednesday at the Huntington Museum's Rothenberg Hall, which seats 374, the atmosphere was cozy and inviting, while the artists were absolutely top-notch, joining us from all over the world - New York, London, Estonia, Los Angeles.

I went primarily to see violinist Paul Huang perform - and his performance only added more evidence to support my contention that here is a violinist who deserves more attention.

Laurie Niles Paul Huang
Violinist Paul Huang and Laurie Niles.

You may remember him from an interview that I posted last week (read that here), and from the fact that he plays the Guarneri del Gesù violin once played by Henryk Wieniawski. I last heard him play in February - another great excellent concert. Next month he is releasing a new album called Kaleidoscope.

But before I get into the music, I have to relate an amusing incident that speaks to the atmosphere of these concerts - it has to do with applause. I described in the latest Weekend Vote but I'll describe it again here: Spence greeted everyone from the stage at the beginning of the concert, describing the pieces were were about to hear and welcoming any newcomers, assuring them that they should just wait for the people around them for their cue to applaud. However - then everyone applauded between all the movements of the opening work - a four-movement trio!

After this, Spence took the stage again, hands folded, smiling, "About the applause...." I've never heard anyone say it in a more inviting and friendly way: he explained that, actually, when something is a multi-movement piece, we treat it as a set, holding the applause until the end, after which we can "just let it rip." That way, the silence in between helps everyone feel the contrast between one movement and the next. And the besides, he added with kind of a wink, if we keep applauding between movements, we'll be here all night and won't get out before the bars close!

It was a perfectly delightful way to get the message across, and it worked. During the remainder of the concert, no one applauded between movements, and they applauded with enthusiasm at the end. And yes, I liked that peaceful silence in between the movements. I also liked the powerful feeling of being in an audience where we'd all agreed to create that silence.

But back to the music, the evening began with some early Beethoven, his String Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2, featuring Huang as well as violist Timothy Ridout and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan.

Camerata Trio
Trio: Violinist Paul Huang, violist Timothy Ridout and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. Photo by Mathew Imaging, courtesy Camerata Pacifica.

Playing with great attention to one another, these three fine musicians produced a warm and unified sound, finding the humor in the first movement and passing the melody around in the second. During the second movement "Andante quasi Allegretto," everything felt so coordinated, as if music somehow was growing out of one tree with three branches, softly bending in the wind. The third-movement "Minuet" was quirky in its rhythms and yet very unforced, flowing and moving in a way in which nothing felt stuck. They found satisfying humor in the fourth movement, with its many starts and stops.

The second piece was for solo piano - pianist Irina Zahharenkova played Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 12 in F Major, K. 332, a piece that one might call a "classic," not only for its time period but for the fact that it has been very amply recorded and performed. As she played it on a beautiful Steinway piano, it occurred to me that Mozart would have written it for an rather different instrument - as noted in the program notes, for the harpsichord or fortepiano, a precursor to our modern-day pianos.

Zahharenkova played the piece with a great deal of intentional rubato - much ebb and flow. The second movement was emotive, feeling almost "floaty." The booming last movement at times pushed forward and at times held back - a swirl of notes. It was intentional, controlled and interesting, though as a listener I longed at times to hook into a stronger pulse.

Last on the program was Edward Elgar's Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84, written following World War 1, and played by Huang, Ridout, Hakhnazaryan, Zahharenkova and violinist Jason Uyeyama.

Camerata Quintet
Violinist Paul Huang and Jason Uyeyama, pianist Irina Zahharenkova, violist Timothy Ridout, and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. Photo by Mathew Imaging, courtesy Camerata Pacifica.

Here was a piece that went in many different directions, from a slow and sultry dance to high-energy fast playing, with five people just wailing on their instruments, then back to something sounding like the ghosts of the dead, stirring in their graves. The second movement felt sad but hopeful, with a beautiful viola solo, then extended cello solo. The third movement was heart-on-the-sleeve stuff, hearkening back to music from the first movements and with strings occasionally playing all in unison. All musicians seemed to be giving their all - fearless, generous playing.

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While I am talking about Camerata Pacific, I wanted to mention their innovative pandemic-era initiative, which has now extended beyond that time. As they described in a short video before their performance, it is called the Nightingale Channel, and it is classical music programming, drawn from Camerata Pacifica’s extensive video library, aimed to provide solace for patients at hospitals, giving them "musical companionship" during a time of stress, tedium and worry. Patients are offered a QR code upon entering the hospital and can access the curated concert videos on their devices. It was launched in 2021 with UCLA Health and is now being offered at more than a dozen hospitals across the United States. Nice idea!

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