Chamber Music Wilmington brought the Kontras String Quartet back to town following their earlier concert on the series four and a half years ago. From their fine performance, it was abundantly clear why they were honored with a return invitation.

The superb Beckwith Recital Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington was host to this concert. It began not with the first programmed work, but with a spoken introduction by Jean Hatmaker, the group’s cellist. She was a lively and enlightening speaker. Her discussion, which nearly turned the program into a lecture-recital, made one wish: that concerts in general might be treated to such commentary. By way of introduction to the theme of the program – the mixture of the folk and concert traditions – the quartet played Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 46 No. 2. This had a pleasingly light and transparent sound.

They continued with the program’s first half, which was devoted to the String Quartet No. 9 in D minor, Op. 34, by Dvořák. The piece was played with rhythmic precision and perfect coordination among the instruments. While the first theme of the first movement might have had a more shifting, restless quality, the second theme was very expressive, with lovely swells and retreats. The second movement (“Alla Polka”) could perhaps have been lighter, whereby the trio section had an excellent soft sound.

The third movement had finely-spun, sensitive long lines and again a lovely pianissimo. The final movement returned to rhythmic intensity, which is a trademark strength of the Kontras.

After the intermission, the group played three works in a more dissonant idiom, two of them written in the current century. The performances revealed a strong identification of the quartet with the music of our time. It is a pleasure to hear performers who embody this connection at the highest artistic level. The entire second half of the concert was a compelling experience.

First in the group was Tenebrae (2000) by Osvaldo Golijov. Tenebrae is a Christian religious service that takes place in the Easter period. The composer, however, is of Jewish origin, and Jewish song is a leading element of the work, inspired by time the composer spent in Israel. Before the performance, Hatfield introduced a segment of the Tenebrae by Couperin as well as a Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) song sung in Ladino. Both of these gave listeners valuable aural reference to the thematic material of the piece, which used Sephardic melodies and quoted directly from the Couperin setting as well. Ben Weber (viola) spoke enlighteningly about the Sephardic background to the music.

This fascinating brew often had an otherworldly sound, with a pulsing, oscillating accompaniment that seemed to be striving for the celestial. There were moments of calm and of passion, with a beautiful dramatic pause before the quiet return. If at times the diverse musical strands rubbed shoulders not quite smoothly, at its best the elements were imaginatively integrated in what sounded almost like an improvisation created at that moment.

This affecting performance was followed by the extroverted String Quartet No. 5, “Quarteto Popular” by Heitor Villa-Lobos. The piece validated its name, with humorous, even cute melodies, while also offering rich harmonies, lively rhythms, and some virtuosic exuberance. In the Dvořák, the first violinist (Dmitri Pogorelov) showed gorgeous, almost endlessly arcing lines; in this episodic first movement, the cellist (Hatmaker) had a wonderful melodic opportunity of her own. The group’s rhythmic energy was on fine display in this dance-like music. There were also unison harmonics – difficult writing – played in flawless tune. Francois Henkins (second violin) earned a full measure of credit here.

The second movement made some of the strongest impressions of the evening. It was mostly dark, even spooky, reminding one of waves driven into stark cliffs. Sweeping lines were followed by dissolution, then more dark virtuosity. The open chord of the ending was positively ghostly. The short third movement came back to a light, even cute quality. The fourth movement danced again, with a high-stepping exuberance. There were exciting moments as a short idea moved quickly up and down the instruments. More flawless harmonics again impressed the listener with the seemingly effortless virtuosity of the ensemble.

The last piece was “Black Bend” (2005) by Dan Visconti. This mixed blues and bluegrass elements with challenging string writing and intricate rhythms. Despite the background story of ghostly moans and ominous anticipation, it was rather entertaining with its improvisatory scrapes, quirky pauses, and Weber playing his viola like a mandolin. At times it sounded like a jam session. This short piece offered great variety, chock full of aural impressions, and made an exciting end to the program.