Thursday, February 28, 2008

Review: Oberon Quartet

Feb. 27, Bannard Chapel, St. Catherine’s School

Richmond’s belated adoption of its native daughter, the composer and pianist Mary Howe, continued as the Oberon Quartet revived two of Howe’s chamber pieces, "Canción Romanesca" (1930) and "Three Emily Dickinson Pieces" (1941).

Howe (1882-1964), who spent most of her life in Washington, worked on the borderline between romantic and modern musical style. Her harmonic language and color sensitivity were informed by the French impressionists, while her thematic material and use of rhapsodic forms mark her as a late romantic.

"Three Emily Dickinson Pieces," an instrumental work inspired by the Dickinson poems "The Summers of Hesperides," "Birds, by the snow" and "God for a frontier," is a relatively long-form work – effectively a three-movement string quartet – in which literary evocations and representations of bird-song are shrouded in complex, occasionally dense harmonizations.

"Canción Romanesca" is a shorter, lighter work recalling the chamber-cum-parlor pieces of Edward Elgar, although it’s hard to imagine Elgar inserting a tango into the proceedings, as Howe does.

The Oberon – violinists Alana Carithers and Susy Yim, violist Molly Sharp and cellist William Comita – played the Howe works with concentration, tonal warmth and sensitivity to her subtle harmonies and colors.

The group was joined by John Winn, a Richmonder best known as a jazz musician, in performances of his "Songs for Modern Times" (2005) and "Adirondack Suite" (2003) for strings, harp (played by Lynette Wardle) and clarinet and soprano saxophone (played by the composer).

Winn’s set of five songs, which he sang in a whispery croon, are in a jazz-inflected pop style. "Silent Mode" or "A Tree That Leans" recall the more wistful John Lennon; "Busy" invites the theatrical delivery of a Broadway vocalist; "What You Eat," with its Bartókian instrumental effects, hovers between art-song and operatic recitative.

Winn’s "Adirondack Suite" is a soundtrack-in-waiting for a travelogue of New York’s north country. Its best moments come in the central piece, "On the Lake – The Big Fish," with its swimming tonal effects and burst of animation as the fish is hooked. Winn’s jazz grounding is evident in the piece’s frequent use of syncopated rhythms and employment of blue notes.

The program opened with the Polonaise (1999) by Jonathan Mott, former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony. This attractive miniature is essentially a solo-violin showcase with string-trio accompaniment; Yim, the lead violinist, played stylishly but leaned too woozily into sliding effects.