The Camerata Pacifica Experience

Irish pianist Barry Douglas came to town last Saturday night as special repeat guest at Camerata Pacifica’s season-opening concert.

No surprise there. Adrian Spence’s ensemble has always been the first arts organization to get its new season underway, invariably beating not just every classical music presenter but all the theater companies and college programmers as well.

Then again, Camerata Pacifica has always been at least slightly ahead of the curve.

To wit, Spence has done just about everything in his power to try to bring classical music to the people, from sponsoring (and hosting) an ongoing series called “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Classical Music” years ago, to importing great players most folks have never heard of from his native Ireland, to creating feedback-oriented coffeehouse and martini concerts that decamped the ensemble from typically stuffy concert halls to venues regular folk are more likely to frequent.

“Our mission isn’t just about presenting concerts but to effect positively how people experience classical music,” Spence said in an interview last week. “Artistic excellence is the base. But it’s incumbent upon us, the presenters, to facilitate access to classical music, which is why we’re always seeking out new avenues.”

Alas, those programs have been curtailed for ’07-‘08, as Camerata struggles to overcome its most hectic off-season to date, a summer that culminated with discovering that their home port of Lehmann Hall on the Music Academy of the West campus would be off-limits for the first two concerts of the season due to construction having dismantled all the parking spots.

“They told us two weeks before the concert that we had two spots available. We considered for a moment auctioning them off to the highest bidder,” Spence joked at his introduction to the September kick-off, which had been moved, as will be the October installment, to the Museum of Natural History’s Fleischmann Hall.

This summer, Spence also undertook what might have been his boldest move yet, one he believes will bring needed stability to the organization: he hired an executive director who has absolutely no experience in classical music.

Shawn O’Docharty signed on for the newly created position, boasting a resume that includes a variety of international diplomatic missions – he worked with refugees in Bosnia after the war – and several forays into theatrical consulting off-Broadway, producing and fundraising in international theater, and involvement in jazz, but zilch with violins, cellos and woodwinds.

“I considered that an asset,” Spence said. “The classical music industry as a whole has to make adjustments to survive. He has a great capacity for lateral thought. The last thing I wanted was someone who is set in his ways, expecting to play by the same sort of rules that have been outdated for years. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s wobbly, and needs an alignment.”

For his part, O’Docharty cited Spence’s “innovative approach” to classical music. “He’s not afraid to take the white gloves off, which is what classical music needs,” he said. “It’s painted itself into a corner. If it’s going to retain and grow audience, it needs people like Adrian who say the music belongs to everyone; we just need to give people access to it. I’m an artist in a different genre, but his dynamic nature and that philosophy was too attractive to resist.”

Also back on board as part of the new executive team is Montecito resident Suzanne Duffy, a flute player and teacher who left several years ago and returns as production manager.

Spence said the new team – Camerata’s first truly professional slate – doesn’t represent a change in direction. But it does allow the organization to grow – including in Ireland and other international cities, where the ensemble’s reputation has increased enough to sustain Camerata’s first sustained tour next year, with stops in Washington D.C., New York, London, Belfast and Dublin – without the additional technical burden “coming down on my shoulders,” Spence said.

The new season also represents the first with the four principal musicians firmly in place: Catherine Leonard (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ani Aznavoorian (cello) and pianist Warren Jones.

“I’ve basically been holding public auditions for the last four years,” Spence said. “Now I’ve put together the core of the group. “This is the first season you will regularly hear the piano quartet in different configurations. It’s going to be,” he promises, “magical.”