Bach, Handel/Halvorsen and Schumann: the soundness of mind and music at The Huntington 

United StatesUnited States Various: Camerata Pacifica (Gilles Vansattel [piano], Kristin Lee [violin], Melissa Reardon [viola], Ani Aznavoorian [cello]). The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, 19.4.2022. (DD)

Camerata Pacifica © Timothy Norris

J.S. Bach – Overture in the French Style in B minor, BWV831
Georg Frideric Handel/Johan Halvorsen – Passacaglia in G minor for Violin and Cello
Robert Schumann – Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op.47 

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens (which has pared its name to simply The Huntington) calls itself a ‘collection-based educational and research institution’, but it is so much more than that. The number of ‘Botanical Gardens’ now stands at 15 (including a beautiful Shakespearean Garden); art can be found in four galleries (say hello to Blue Boy!); and the book collection extends from British medieval manuscripts and the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales to manuscripts from Ptolemy and Chaucer through Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, to modern aerospace holdings.

The Huntington also has a wonderfully designed concert hall and stage, where four members of Camerata Pacifica – pianist Gilles Vansattel, violinist Kristin Lee, violist Melissa Reardon and cellist Ani Aznavoorian – recently assembled and performed music by J.S. Bach, Handel/Halvorsen and Schumann, composers whose works, especially chamber music performances, cannot be done too often. 

Following a friendly and humorous introduction by Adrian Spence, Camerata Pacifica’s Founder and Artistic Director, the music began with Bach’s Overture in the French Style. This remarkable composition consists of eight individual movements beginning with an Overture, continuing through six common suite pieces (Courante, Gavotte, Passepied, Sarabande, Bourrée and Gigue), and ending with a rarity, the ‘Echo’, a sequence of musical phrases containing sudden arcs that waver between loud and soft (hence the echo). Vansattel’s playing was energetic, with clear articulation and expressivity, and rife with ornamentations. 

Next came the Passacaglia in G minor for Violin and Cello by Georg Frederic Handel, part of a suite of pieces first performed in the 1720s and later re-arranged by Handel. That version would be revised by Johan Halvorsen, who took the chords of the original passacaglia and enlivened them with broken voicings and instrumental interplay. It is a technically challenging piece of music, brilliantly executed here by Lee and Aznavoorian; Derek Katz’s program notes remind us of the ‘dramatic musical sweep’ of both musicians. Deep into the performance, an audience member behind me whispered to a friend, ‘How does the cellist get such a big sound?’ It was a proper query for which I had no answer, except to mention – after the performance had ended, of course – that Ani Aznavoorian is simply a phenomenal cellist. 

The program closed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, part of his chamber-music pieces composed and performed in the early 1840s. Following a stately introduction, the music moves into a realm filled with musical expressions of life and passion in a manner that is pure Schumann. The composer ingeniously fuses his motivic melodies into a pure, straightforward statement of rhythm and harmony and, if there is life in music, here was a wonderful example. The second movement scherzo is marked presto, and the players were able to meet the pace while achieving an exacting yet delicate sound. The third movement is home to what I find to be one of Schumann’s most beautiful melodies, made even more powerful by its tenderness. The final movement begins with a phrase that immediately grabs the listener’s attention, followed by one of Schumann’s most moving melodies. 

Finally, Camerata Pacific provided their audiences with necessary and intelligent program notes. They were thorough and clearly expressed, and did not look askance when helpful details were needed. Nor did the notes talk down to the audience. In a word or three, they provided assistance, information and explanation. Bravo, Camerata Pacifica!

Douglas Dutton

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