Camerata Pacifica’s Beethoven Project

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 13, 2018
(from left) Paul Huang, The Bob Christensen chair in violin; Warren Jones, The Robert & Mercedes Eichholz chair in piano; and Ani Aznavoorian, principal cello

Camerata Pacifica began life almost 30 years ago as the Bach Camerata, a tribute to the famed Baroque composer whose music they frequently performed, including multiple concerts of the Brandenburg Concertos. But even before the Santa Barbara-based chamber music organization changed to its current moniker right around the time it marked its first decade, the ensemble had adopted a more modern attitude, playing lots of new music, including commissioning many pieces from cutting-edge composers.

So, why in the world would this forward-thinking innovative organization want to spend the next two seasons delving deep into music of the most famous composer in history – Ludwig Van Beethoven?

It’s simple, said Cam Pac founder Adrian Spence. It’s because large numbers of listeners, including casual classical music fans and devotees of the music alike, really don’t understand Beethoven at all.

“Beethoven is such an icon that most people don’t actually hear his music,” Spence explained. “They’re not aware of everything that Beethoven did, and what he still does to us today – his impact. It’s all too easy just to hear those famous four notes (from the Fifth Symphony), or Ode to Joy, and smile with the recognition of familiarity without realizing that the classical music world was being turned upside-down when it was happening.”

Taking a deep dive into Beethoven is consistent with Cam Pac’s goals of wanting to impact how one experiences classical music on every level, Spence said. Accordingly, the ensemble will offer a total of 20 concerts over the next two seasons – a 25-percent expansion on the previous total of eight per season – that span Beethoven’s first published work (the Piano Trio in E-flat Major, which opens Friday night’s program at Hahn Hall) to his final string quartet, plus 12 panel discussions split between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and several other special events.

Spence expanded and espoused on the reasons behind the choices in programming and beyond. 

Q. It’s quite an ambitious project to devote two years to Beethoven’s music, with at least one of his works featured on every program through the summer of 2020. Why? 

A. Beethoven single-handedly changed the direction of music. It can be persuasively argued he created what many recognize as today’s music: subjective and emotionally expressive. At the same time, I don’t think there’s another composer whose impact today is so under-appreciated. That’s because we don’t understand what happened to bring it to this point, and the impact he has today. The idea of reverence at a concert hall, or that if you don’t get a piece of music the first time you hear it that you should listen to it over and over again, or the idea of the canonization of composers – it’s all from his time. It’s all from his pull. He’s got a lot to answer for… Most people listen to music today through the lens that was crafted at the start of 19th century, in his mold of music-making. If it doesn’t fit into that, people don’t like it.

Why does it matter? Why do we need to have that context to enjoy the music?

You don’t. But it’s been our mission, what we’ve done forever, to try to constantly engage the audience with the music in a more substantial fashion. I’m not interested in just playing pretty music for you to listen to, and have you doze through it, literally or figuratively. You can drop in and just have a lovely time, but if you take the whole journey with us – come to everything, including the panels – it’ll certainly change how you hear the music of Beethoven and, I maintain, how you hear music in general. That’s what we want to do.

There seems to be a paradox in there, that we need to listen to Beethoven’s music to let go of listening to music through the lens of his time.

Yes, it’s about clearing your ears both to listen to modern music and to hear Beethoven in context. Those first four notes of the 5th Symphony were as shocking to 19th-century audiences, who were used to hearing an opening of a symphony in sonata form, as atonal music is to many today. The audience literally would have been thinking “What the hell is going on?” because it didn’t follow what they were used to hearing. But Beethoven didn’t [care]. He wasn’t composing music to be listened to right away and loved. He was writing for posterity.

You are also collaborating with the Calder Quartet, which if memory serves is the first time you’ve ever brought in an outside ensemble.

We’re known for having lots of rehearsal time, usually between 30 to 50 hours before we take it public, which is huge! But the late string quartets of Beethoven go beyond that – they are the domain of actual (performing) quartets. They’re such complex pieces that even we wouldn’t be able to assemble enough time for our musicians to get inside of the music completely. So, we approached Calder to join us for those pieces.

Given Beethoven’s vast repertoire, how did you choose which pieces to perform?

That was a very big challenge, and partly why we expanded to 10 programs for each year. But the object is not to offer a comprehensive review of all of Beethoven’s music, but instead to impact how you hear it in the context both of his time and the music of our time to get a sense of the history. But I can only tell you if we were successful at the end of the two years.

Why two years instead of fitting it into a single season? Or, for that matter, why not three or five?

Two years is plenty long enough to commit. But really, it’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: one wasn’t long enough to do what we wanted to, and three was too much. But two was just right. If that’s ambitious, so be it. We like to be a bit strange.

(Camerata Pacifica violinist Paul Huang, cellist Ani Aznavoorian, and pianist Warren Jones perform Beethoven Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1, Nº.1; Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52; and Brahms’s Sonata in D Minor for Violin & Piano, Op. 108, at 7:30 pm Friday, September 14, at Hahn Hall, 1070 Fairway Road. For tickets or more information, call (805) 884-8410 or visit


You might also be interested in...