Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Oberon Quartet

March 24, St. Christopher’s School

The Oberon Quartet had planned to play the Bagatelles of Mason Bates about a month ago, when the Richmond-bred composer was revisiting his old school, St. Christopher’s, and having his Violin Concerto played by Anne Akiko Meyers and the Richmond Symphony. A snowstorm intervened, and the Oberon performance had to be rescheduled.

The ensemble, which maintains a residency at St. Christopher’s and St. Catherine’s schools, paired Bates’ work with the familiar String Quartet of Maurice Ravel. Violinists Alana Pritchard Carithers and Susy Yim and violist Molly Sharp were joined by cellist Ryan Lannan, with whom they play in the Richmond Symphony. The group’s regular cellist, Bill Comita, was absent because of a family emergency.

Performing in St. Christopher’s recently opened Playhouse, a room about the size of a 19th-century salon, the Oberon produced a vivid, ripe collective sonority – perhaps a bit much for the subtler, more sonically rarified sections of the Ravel, but just right for Bates’ extroverted Ballades.

In a video preview of the piece, the 37-year-old composer described the first of the three ballades, “Rough Math,” as “some of the most head-banging music I’ve written.” Not so much in volume or aggressiveness (the usual implications of “head-banging”), it turned out, as in rhythmic activity and a certain jaggedness produced by irregular (or, as Bates put it, “lopsided”) rhythms.

The basic pulse of “Rough Math” and the two subsequent bagatelles, “On a Wire: Mating Dance” and “Scrapyard Exotica” (played in reverse order from that in the score), alternate between one or more strings and electronic effects (from Todd Matthews, manning a laptop computer) created by manipulating recorded fiddle sounds (of the Del Sol Quartet, which introduced the piece in 2012).

“Rough Math” and “Scrapyard Exotica” maintain, for all their rhythmic intricacies, fairly consistent grooves; “On a Wire” sounds more free-form, both rhythmically and in its voicings.

The Oberon negoitiated Bates’ Bagatelles ably with a palpable sense of adventurousness.

Some of the same qualities came through in the Ravel quartet, especially in the pizzicato of the work’s second movement, which sounded more spontaneous and chancy (also, more roughly textured) than in the usual interpretation, and in the finale, which came across as less agité, more energetically festive.