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Music review: Marimba along the Camerata Pacifica

September 13, 2010 |  1:31 pm

The egg scare is apparently over. As yet, we’ve heard of nothing avian to worry about in the upcoming flu season. So what’s a hypochondriac to do? Well, there is always marimba madness, a new contagion.

Camerata Pacifica is among those spreading it. The chamber music series opened its 21st season over the weekend with a marimba-based program featuring an exceptional young player, Ji Hye Jung.

The condition first seemed serious the summer before last, when the Colburn School hosted a two-week marimba festival. That led to more marimba festivals and a series of new short solo works by Louis Andriessen, Steven Stucky, Chinary Ung and 21 other composers recorded on Bridge Classics.

In Japan, there is the high-wire jazz marimbist Mika Yoshida. A recently released DVD, “Mika Marimba Madness” (what else?), of her in concert last year reveals an amazing, energetic performer ready for major exposure.

Jung is another discovery. Born in Korea, based in Kansas, where she teaches, she was a guest with the Camerata last season. The series immediately commissioned Bright Sheng to write a piece for her and violinist Catherine Leonard, which had its premiere Friday in Santa Barbara.

I caught the repeat at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura on Sunday afternoon. This group might more accurately be called Camerata Highway 101 because the program continues south to the Huntington Library on Tuesday and the Colburn School on Thursday (which KUSC (91.5) will broadcast live).

Based on a Chinese folk tune from the Sichuan province, Sheng's “Hot Pepper” takes its name from the area’s fondness for hot spices. But the heat was also in a scorching performance. The 10-minute score had the feel of a Bartók rhapsody, a seductive warm-up of the tune, with some fancy virtuosic ornamentation, and then a section of wildness.

Although physically cumbersome, the marimba is an instrument that travels well culturally. Africa introduced it to the Americas. An Australian (Percy Grainger) and a French composer (Darius Milhaud) were among the first to use it in classical music. It suits Asia, as well. Toru Takemitsu liked it for evoking Japan past and present. Sheng chose mellow gong-like resonances to provide an atmosphere that was excitingly pierced by Leonard, a focused, fiery player.

Two more marimba duos followed. In Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel,” in which the composer says he meant to capture the nanosecond before grief on learning of a death, Jung was joined by cellist Ani Aznavoorian. Jung floated the marimba’s tremulous accompaniment between earth and air. Aznavoorian played with thicker emotion, for her Golijov’s haunting melody had become already weepy.

Flutist Adrian Spence, Camerata’s artistic director, invited Jung to make an arrangement of the keyboard part to Bach’s A-Major Flute Sonata for marimba. She did and played it with flair. No harpsichord this big resonant instrument, it dominated the room and Spence, a gracious flutist who left the color to his accompanist.

Jung ended the long first half with Joseph Schwantner’s “Velocities (Moto Perpetuo).” The solo marimba repertory is still minuscule, and this is the standard show piece (the 24 new works on the Bridge recording are for intermediate level players). “Velocities” is more about athleticism and tone than musical ideas. Jung is a centered player who can give the impression of being very still yet at all places at once along her long instrument. She was, here, spectacular.

Dvorak After intermission, Leonard and Aznavoorian were joined by pianist Warren Jones for Dvorák’s Trio in F Minor, Opus 65. These are three of Camerata’s core players and a tight trio, but essentially unalike. Leonard, a vividly propulsive and dramatic violinist, led. More effusive, Aznavoorian contributed a a rich foundation to the sound. Meanwhile, Warren’s bright, exacting piano remained in the background, a support to impulsive partners.

What did this have to do with the marimba? Nothing. But it also proved smart programming. The matinee audience at Beth Torah included many seniors and Spence joked from the stage with some about their complaints towards new music. Dvorák’s trio -- its folk melodies and soulful melodies and imaginative developments –- sounded in retrospect as if the composer might well have led the way for Sheng, Golijov and Schwantner. The trio also sounded magnificent in the intimate, unadorned room at Beth Torah, where music has an immediate presence.

Expect more from both Sheng and Jung. Spence announced Sunday that his venturesome Camerata has commissioned two more works from the composer, including a marimba concerto for Jung.

-- Mark Swed

Camerata Pacifica. Huntington Library, 1115 Oxford Road, San Marino. 8 p.m., Tuesday. Zipper Hall, the Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m., Thursday. $42 ($10 student rush). (805) 884-8410 or

Photo: At top, Marimbist Ji Hye Jung at Temple Beth Torah Sunday afternoon. Below, violinist Catherine Leonard, cellist Ani Aznavoorian and pianist Warren Jones. Credit Anne Cusak/Los Angeles Times.