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Camerata San Antonio

From German culture to global culture

October 18, 2010

The two halves of Camerata San Antonio’s concert of Oct. 17 reflect two very different eras in the history of human mobility.

Johannes Brahms, whose Clarinet Quintet in B Minor closed the concert, was the German son of German parents; before he was born, his father’s search or work took him from Dithmarschen to Hamburg, a distance of about 50 miles. Apart from springtime visits to Italy, Johannes seldom ventured far beyond the line connecting Hamburg, where he was born in 1833, and Vienna, where he died in 1897 -- a distance of less than 500 miles. The older composers who influenced him were almost exclusively German. Apart from occasional nods to Hungary and the Gypsies, as in one episode of the Clarinet Quintet, Brahms’s music was German. Period.

But the two composers on the concert’s first half are emblematic of the global, synchretistic culture that seems to be the defining trait of the 21st century. Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 in Argentina to Eastern-European Jewish parents; as a young adult he moved to Israel and then to the United States. Gabriela Lena Frank was born in 1972 in Berkeley, Calif., to a Peruvian-Chinese mother and a Lithuanian Jewish father. Both of these composers draw ideas from cultural systems that, by the standards of any century prior to the 20th, are unimaginably diverse and far-flung. Their music is -- well, it is what it is. It’s also awfully good.

Frank is remembered locally for the San Antonio Symphony’s 2008 performance of her Three Latin American Dances, a work whose title obscures clearly audible influences that also span the North Atlantic and extend to Central Europe. Camerata offered “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout,” for string quartet. It’s a suite of six contrasting movements, formally not far from the baroque model. The music itself has a strongly Andean flavor. Several of the movements emulate the sound of panpipes or duct flutes playing in parallel fifths and fourths -- anathema in the European classical tradition. But there’s a lot more going on than a translation of Andean idioms to European instruments. There are many layers to this music, it rewards careful listening, the rhythmic complexity is intriguing, and its emotional content seems genuine.

The excellent musicians were violinists Matthew Zerweck (who impressed with his astonishingly accurate pitch in the instrument’s highest register in the mournful “Canto de Velorio” movement) and Sayaka Okada, violist Emily Freudigman and cellist Kenneth Freudigman.

The same players opened with Golijov’s “Tenebrae.” The title alludes to a work by Francois Couperin that provided some of the source material. The music pivots between baroque and modernist idioms, with some hints of the Hebraic. It has a generally mournful cast, but never approaches desolation and is ultimately rather hopeful. Most remarkable is the texture, a tapestry of trills and contrapuntal embroidery. As one expects from Golijov, much of it is stunningly beautiful, as was the performance.

As luck would have it, Camerata’s performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor followed just one week after members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center played the same work on the San Antonio Chamber Music Society series. The performances were similar in merit but very different in character, CMSLC emphasizing the autumnal side of late Brahms, Camerata favoring the vigorous side. Ilya Shterenberg, clarinetist for the local team, projected a more forward tone than had David Shifrin the week before, and Shterenberg’s phrasing was livelier. Camerata’s strings may have had a slight edge in unified ensemble and matched timbres. But Camerata also had the advantage of the Travis Park United Methodist Church’s focused, intimate sound, versus the more distant and less clear acoustic of Temple Beth-El, where CMSLC played.
Mike Greenberg