COSTA MESA — "Tonight we are playing Bach's music as it was intended . . . as music played by friends among friends in intimate surroundings."
So prefaced Keith Clark on Friday night at the inaugural concert of the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center Chamber Music Series, and his statement accurately reflected the spirit of the occasion.
Clark, who founded the locally based Pacific Symphony, was making his first appearance in Costa Mesa since being forced out of the orchestra two years ago after a lengthy and very public battle with various board members and executive directors. He has planned three concerts with the Mondavi's director of special events, Deborah Fabricant, the others to take place April 25 and May 30.
His introductory notes to the all-Bach first program pointed out the relatively non-idiomatic nature of Bach's instrumental music as justification for a mixture of modern and 18th-Century performance practices.
A skeletal orchestra--violinists Sheryl Staples and Robert Peterson, violist Simon Oswell, cellist Geof Shank, harpsichordist Michael Zearott--offered a perfunctory nod to baroque tradition while liberal use of vibrato on contemporary strings and an adult soprano acknowledged modern tastes.
As organizer and musical host, Clark lent experience, energy and charm. However, as leader of a group that at no time numbered more than seven, his presence was at best mysterious, at worst distracting.
Still, such technicalities were not primary concerns. Nestled into one end of the softly lit Pavilion Room, surrounded by sculpture and performing for an audience whose workday stresses had disappeared with wine and hors d'oeuvres, the musicians contributed enthusiastically to the ambience.
Ten-year-old violinist Tamaki Kawakubo, an innocent in her peach-colored frock, served up the E-major Concerto with focus and involvement. Understandably strongest in the fast movements, she spoke with ingenuous clarity in the slow movement. There, cellist Shank offset the solo with an understated, mournful obbligato.
Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh attacked Cantata No. 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen," with a hefty soprano and dramatic exploitation of dynamics, augmented by echoing acoustics. Trumpeter Andrew Ulyate partnered with virtuosic flourish.
Staples and flutist Michael Fried united expressively for the Brandenburg Concerto, persisting despite ensemble problems engendered by the live hall. Only Zearott appeared uncomfortable, as if confounded by requirements of harpsichord and yearning for the dynamic capabilities of a piano.