Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

March 30, Richmond Music Hall, Capitol Ale House

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble introduced a Nonet, “Rags and Hymns of River City,” by Mason Bates in a downtown Richmond venue better-known for rock and blues than for classical music. That the new piece, and others on the program, were not musical misfits in this space says a lot about the directions that the music commonly known as classical has been taking for the past generation.

Bates, who grew up in Richmond and has since become one of the most frequently performed living composers in this country, has been an active navigator and pilot in the new classical directions. He was one of the first to incorporate electronica (digitally generated sounds) into orchestral music, and his compositions frequently have drawn on vernacular musics, from folksong to jazz and blues to the more artsy strains of rock. This comes naturally to a musician who has doubled as a club DJ for much of his career. (He showcases that alter-ego in a series called Mason Bates’ KC Jukebox at Washington’s Kennedy Center, where he’s currently composer-in-residence.)

“Rags and Hymns of River City,” which ACE commissioned with underwriting from the Allan and Margot Blank Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and other donors, is one of the most unreservedly vernacular pieces I’ve heard from Bates. Where many of his compositions have used folk or popular references as a kind of garnish to classical forms, here he flips the script, with strings and woodwinds layering neo-neo-classical voicing onto non-classical forms such as the ragtime cakewalk and blues-jazz shuffle (both underpinned by Bates’ electronic rhythm tracks) to make street music of chamber music.

The three pieces that preceded the Bates premiere do much the same thing, albeit on differing paths at different altitudes.

Where “Rags and Hymns” has a rather mellow, Southern kind of urbanity, John Harbison’s Wind Quintet (1979), whose finale was performed in this program, gives off the more rhythmically angular and harmonically fractious air of the Northern city, where bebop and its descendants are the music of the night.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Leyendas: Andean Walkabout” (2001) for string quartet is a kind of aural history tour of the high country of Peru (source of one of the composer’s multi-ethnic roots), with vividly evocative, at times almost cinematically representative, sections recalling the region’s people and folkways, and a musical style that closely parallels folk and popular idioms.

The program’s opening selection, Molly Joyce’s “ABC” (2017), a duo for live viola (played by Kimberly Sparr) and an electronically doctored recording of a viola, is another sample of high-tension urbanity, more elemental than Harbison’s; in Joyce’s piece, syncopated pizzicato figures gradually grow into a vaguely yearning melody, which in turn recedes into a milder, somehow more resigned, pizzicato finale.

ACE’s members – in addition to violist Sparr, violinist Alana Carithers, cellist Jason McComb, double-bassist Ayca Kartari, flutist Jen Lawson, oboist Shawn Welk, clarinetist Jared Davis, bassoonist Tom Schneider and French horn player Erin Lano – rode this program’s varied grooves with energy, fluency and palpable engagement.

Mason Bates’ “Rags and Hymns of River City” will be reprised, alongside works by Maurice Ravel and Jean Français, at 4 p.m. June 2 at Unity of Bon Air, 923 Buford Road. Donation requested. Details: (804) 320-5584; http://www.acensemble.org

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