The crowd is restive, more so than usual it seems for a concert at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. It is, however, the usual attire for San Diego. Women are dressed up, with the men not as dressed up. I take in the post-Frank Lloyd Wrightesque architecture, the wood grained panels complementing the topaz blue walls and seats.
Six musicians enter the stage in this pre-Covid-19 concert, one with a bandoneon, an instrument like a squeezebox and like an accordion with a sound that is a bit bolder and rawer than either. Then come the first strains of a tango, the timbres of the bandoneon contrasting with the flute and strings. The tempo, that infectious tango tempo, drives on. Tango dancers dance, and during the evening we’re even treated to vocals.
Another night of tangos, and another great performance from Camarada, one of San Diego’s premier chamber orchestras. In its 25-year-plus history, Camarada has consistently delighted San Diego audiences, whether amid the homey surroundings of La Jolla’s Athenaeum, the austere Neurosciences Institute, the post industrial surroundings of Bread and Salt, or at a casual house concert.
The ensemble is the realization of flutist Beth Ross-Buckley, who co-founded the ensemble 26 years ago and serves as Camarada’s co-artistic director. She has a special love of chamber music. “Performing chamber music, there are just five of you up there. There is no conductor. You and the other musicians, you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s all yours,” she says. “There’s a deep connection with the other musicians; you’re constantly listening and adjusting to what the other performers are doing.”
Tangos may not be what comes to mind first when one thinks of chamber music. We think of the sweet strains of Hayden, Mozart, and Schubert, all of which comprise Camarada’s repertoire. But Camarada first performed tangos over ten years ago. The concerts have been popular with their audience, particularly with the compositions of Astor Piazzolla, whom Ross-Buckley, it seems, can’t get enough of. “He studied with classical composers in Europe, and there’s a lot of jazz, so it’s quite a fusion,” she says.
And so speaking of jazz, Camarada ventures out of the classical composition mold and play (gasp!) jazz, at least from time to time. It all started when Ross-Buckley heard local jazz icon Peter Sprague. She remembers, “I went up to him after one of his performances and just outright asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating with me. Imagine my surprise when he just said, ‘Let’s work it out!’ I wouldn’t have dreamed of playing jazz. But I’m a seeker. I wanted to perform music that speaks to me. I wanted fun music for the audience.”
It might be easy to assume that someone who spends years and years of his or her life studying music, performing in a youth orchestra in high school and going on to study at a conservatory would be challenged to play a popular style of music. But jazz is a whole different realm from classical music. For their first performance together, Sprague coached Ross-Buckley on jazz styling. “And he wrote out all my parts!” she says.
How did the veteran musician feel? “It was terrifying! So much of what goes on in jazz is super complex. And it’s such a different feel. There is so much to learn about the feel. For other shows Peter kept pushing me. I’m just standing there and out of the blue he looks at me and says, ‘Take a solo.’”
Ross-Buckley has done a lot to establish her jazz bona fides. She has studied with Holly Hofmann, one of San Diego’s most respected jazz performers and promoters. “Holly taught me a lot about playing jazz. I learned to have fun with it,” Ross-Buckley says.
Some of the projects that Camarada has done with jazz musicians are a melding of the two worlds, such as their “Jobim with Strings,” which has the orchestra interweaving with the performance of the master’s bossa nova hits. Besides Peter Sprague, other San Diego jazz and popular musicians who regularly perform with Camarada are drummer Duncan Moore; bassists Gunnar Biggs, Rob Thorsen and Jeff Pekarek; and pianist Mike Wofford.
It can be thought that the classical music crowd wants their Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. And some think that the women will faint and the men will stomp their feet in anger if they are presented with the flat fives and blue notes that jazz musicians play. The same goes for jazz fans. Take them to a classical concert and folks are afraid that they might burst out with “when’s this band gonna start swinging?” But Ross-Buckley says that the classical audiences have been very receptive to Camarada’s jazz offerings, and the same can be said of the jazz crowd.
As part of their house concerts Camarada offers its Cabernet Series, three or four house concerts at your home that are fully catered and feature wine tasting. Ross-Buckley says that the ensemble is considering something more casual, what she calls “patio concerts” that forego the catering and wine tasting.
There is always a certain verve to a Camarada performance. That is obviously due to the talents of high-caliber musicians, but it’s also due to the quality of the program. When Ross-Buckley and Dana Burnett, the other co-artistic director of Camarada, put together a program, they start with a foundational piece, a composition around which the rest of the program will be based. For example, for a recent performance, Evoke the Baroque, they had wanted to perform the entire Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. “Then we do a ton of research and listening,” says Ross Buckley. “I found a Rameau piece that I had never heard, which I absolutely love. And Dana found some totally delightful, and a bit quirky, Purcell pieces. When we are searching, our rule of thumb is that it needs to be music that moves us and will move our audience.”
Ross-Buckley and the rest of Camarada have adapted to the pandemic. “I just had two zoom meetings this morning,” she says. “It’s efficient, and it’s keeping Camarada going.” Rehearsals are outside and safe. Rehearsing in the open air, without the ambiance of a hall, it is difficult for the musicians to blend, to sound as one, as chamber orchestras are supposed to sound, but Camarada is getting by. “I have a patio. So we practice there,” says Ross-Buckley. “Of course, we all pray for good weather. If it’s too hot I have some umbrellas, and if it’s cold, everybody dresses warmly. So it’s working out.”
They have resumed Covid-safe performances. Recently performed at Bread and Salt, where they have been performing for the past seven or eight years. Ross-Buckley says that the musicians appreciate that they can spread out when they perform there.
Ross-Buckley grew up on a farm in Minnesota, where she says everyone plays a musical instrument. She started on piano then found the flute, which she loved. “Music always made a lot of sense to me. I loved the feeling of playing the flute. I felt really connected to that.”
She attended and received her bachelor’s of music in flute performance from Saint Olaf College and earned her master’s in music from the University of Minnesota. While at the university, she met her husband, David Buckley, a violinist in the university’s orchestra.
As she progressed with her education, Ross-Buckley began to see herself more and more as a performer. “I’m of the generation that I thought that as a music major my choices were limited, that I was going to be a music teacher and that was it. It took me a long while to realize that you could make a living as a performer,” she says.
After university, the couple moved to San Francisco, where David continued his training as a physician. (Dr. David Buckley has been a part of Camarada throughout its 26-year history. The president of Radiology Medical Group, who has served as chief of radiology at Scripps Mercy Hospital Buckley is also co-concertmaster of the La Jolla Symphony.
They moved to San Diego, only to find a dearth of chamber music. That is when Ross-Buckley started Camarada with singer Ann Chase and pianist Mary Barranger. She says, “I found that there were a lot of San Diego musicians who were seeking to have great performance experiences. They wanted something intimate, something to feed the soul play great music.”
When Ross-Buckley co-founded Camarada, San Diego was thirsting for good music. The much loved—and considered one on the top classical stations in the United States—KFSD was bought up by an insurance company that changed the programing from Prokofiev and Grieg to something their marketing department thought up. No more Kingsley McLaren politely introducing Dvorac. No more Karl Haas and Adventures in Good Music. As well, the San Diego Symphony was bankrupt and stopped performing in 1996. Things were dire. I remember being in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and members of the San Diego Symphony performing Shubert’s Octet for tips.
“It was critical for a vital arts scene in San Diego, for all arts organizations, that the San Diego Symphony get back on its feet,” Ross-Buckley says. “It really is ‘the more, the merrier!’ Without the San Diego Symphony classical music was in a big downward swing,” says Ross-Buckley. “Many of my best friends moved away for other symphony jobs: Sheryl Renk, Dennis and Peggy Michel, etc. I am so grateful for everyone who brought the Symphony back to life.”
Post Covid Ross-Buckley plans to keep expanding collaborations and creative links. The ensemble is beginning a new collaboration with UCSD Downtown and Rafael Fernandez of the UCSD Global Policy and Strategy School. Called “Music of the Americas,” the joint series will feature music, lectures, and film, and possibly food and wine tasting. All this is set to occur in the new venue called the “U,” which is opening in September. They are also looking forward to a Day of the Dead concert, which will feature Camarada’s take on Miguel del Aguila’s “Conga Line in Hell,” a composition that is as fun and mischievous as it sounds.
Also, Camarada will be continuing their Artist in Residency with the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. Camarada plans to perform a couple of summer concerts and then continue the Mingle Series. Ross-Buckley says, “We are so thrilled to be back in a new amazing Mingei. It will be stunning! And we’re so excited to see our audiences again! Being away for so long, and getting back together, it just magnifies the feeling.”