Southern Pines’ charming and intimate Sunrise Theater was well filled with music lovers for the opening program of the 2018-19 Classical Concert Series. Now beginning its 27th season, it has been under the aegis of the Moore County Arts Council in recent years. The organizers are savvy about lining up some of the finest new ensembles at the start of their careers. This concert featured the Omer String Quartet.  Like many of their predecessors, the Omer Quartet won first prize at the 2017 Young Concert Artists competition. They have been appointed Ernest Stiefel Quartet-in-Residence at Caramoor.

The Omer Quartet consists of violinists Mason Yu and Erica Tursi, violist Jinsun Hong, and cellist Alex Cox.

Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2 (H.III:32), by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), is the second of six quartets in a 1772 set called the “Sun Quartets” because of the image on the published score. They mark the full maturity of the Viennese classical style established by the composer. No longer dominated by the first violin, all four instruments are treated equally and independently. It is in four movements: Moderato, Capriccio: Adagio, Minuet: Allegretto, and Fuga a Quattro soggetti.

The new style is brazen in Op. 20, No. 2, and from the rich solo notes of Cox’s fine cello that opened the piece, the first theme was taken up in turn by the others. The Omer’s intonation was superb, as was their close matching of playing style. The violins of Yu and Tursi blended immaculately. Besides her fine playing, the distinct beauty of Hong’s Amati viola reproduction was a constant pleasure: it projected into the hall ideally at all dynamics. The Omer’s approach to Haydn is as fine as any top ensemble active now or in the recent past.

The Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893), by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), has four movements that widely diverge from the classic model established by Haydn. Debussy uses a cyclic germinal motif suggestive of César Franck while the sensuous atmosphere is reminiscent of the Nocturne of Borodin’s Second Quartet. Debussy is defined by his combining modal harmonic flavoring and his extraordinary sensitivity to refined, subtle instrumental timbres as part of his tonal palette.

A long delay due to a broken cello string aside, the Omer brought similar mastery to the very different sound-world of Debussy. Their control of dynamics and their meticulous care in recreating Debussy’s kaleidoscopic range of instrumental color and timbre was excellent. The slow movement was marginally more deliberate than usual, but their expressive choices were convincing.

No detailed program notes were included in this season’s program. Violinist Tursi introduced the Haydn and Debussy. The long hiatus of the broken string was not wasted, as Yu, Tursi, and Hong answered audience questions about themselves, their instruments, and the quartet’s founding. Tursi then went ahead and gave the information about the last two works on the program.

Quartet No. 1 (2009), by Chris Rogerson (b.1988), is in three movements (“Duel,” “Hymn,” and “Dance”) and lasts about twelve minutes. The composer has racked up an impressive array of awards and commissions. Praised for the “virtuosic exuberance” of his music by the The New York Times, he is on the roster of the Young Concert Artists. He has recently been composer-in-residence with the Amarillo Symphony, among others.

What a relief to hear an imaginative, tonal new work of some substance and length! The ensemble brought plenty of drama to the opening movement, a relentless driving rhythm with a brief, gentle drop in dynamic. The slow movement, “Hymn,” might take on a life of its own, excerpted like the very different Adagio from Samuel Barber’s First Quartet. A meditative, spiritual atmosphere is created by long, sustained harmonics from the cello and viola with prayerful commentaries or, in turn, songs from the first violin and others. Without pause, the tempo quickens for the finale. The Omer tossed about quick, repeated rhythmic patterns and floated a brief lyrical episode before ending with a dramatic flourish.

The Groβe Fugue in B-flat, Op. 133, by Ludwig van Beethoven is the craggy, monumental piece originally planned to be the final movement of his Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130. It can benefit from many different individual approaches. Those I have heard mostly veered toward the monumental, and one memorable one was an ecstatic reverie. This group reined back fff, applied ppp more widely, and marginally slowed tempi for an individual but very satisfying interpretation.  

(The Omer Quartet appeared as a replacement for the originally scheduled Zorá Quartet, 2015 winners of the Young Concert Artists competition, which had to cancel its tour while they replace a member who left.)