Music lovers heard solid and sophisticated performances of chamber music on July 19 in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. The Eastern Music Festival selected one of the most respected chamber music ensembles, the Orion String Quartet. Officially formed in 1987, they have built an enviable record of mastery of the standard repertoire and have aggressively commissioned new works from composers as diverse as Leon Kirchner and Wynton Marsalis. Violinists Daniel and Todd Phillips play fine Stradivarius instruments. Like the better known Emerson Quartet, they lead the quartet in turn. Cellist Timothy Eddy, an alumnus of the N.C. School of the Arts, plays a fine Matteo Goffriller (1728) cello. In the absence of program notes, violist Steven Tenenbom served as spokesman. Though listed on the Orion website as playing a Gasparo da Salò viola, he used instead a large, resonant instrument by Peregrino Zanetto.

Mozart probably composed his meditative Quartet in E-flat, K.428, in Vienna during the summer of 1783. It is the third of the composer’s set of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn in which the older composer’s innovations acted as catalyst and challenge to Mozart’s imagination. The first movement is at times surprisingly lush and features an un-harmonized melody in octaves that are far from the E-flat home key. Advanced chromatic harmonies are used throughout the lovely slow movement. A really alert listener can hear a presentment of Wagner’s motif for Tristan und Isolde in a passage in the development section. The Menuetto provides this piece’s first vigorous rhythmic impulse, a welcome contrast to the mood of reflection. Unexpected silences, strong dynamic contrasts, and witty treatment of tunes are just part of Mozart’s arsenal in the finale and an apt nod toward Haydn. Todd Phillips led a solid standard interpretation with sensible tempos and no exaggerations.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to compose his String Quartet No. 1 (“At the Octoroon Balls”) for the Orion String Quartet, which premiered it on May 7, 1995. It consists of seven independent pieces that draw upon the composer’s roots in New Orleans, his deep knowledge of jazz, and his extensive study of the quartets of Beethoven and Bartók while a student at the Juilliard School. The style is very eclectic, rather like what Bartók or Ligeti might have done if they had transcribed Gershwin arrangements of New Orleans-based folk elements using the full armory of modern string technique. Thus there are dissonant double stops and harmonics, four-way pizzicato passages, and percussive treatment of the string instruments.

Like the only other performance of this Marsalis work that I have reviewed, the Orion wisely made a selection of four sections of the complete quartet. Each player in turn provided oral comments for the piece that featured his instrument. Eddy introduced “Many Gone,” in which the cello is a rip-roaring Baptist minister who is “feelin’ the spirit.” It opens and closes with a chorale played by the whole quartet. Daniel Phillips, who took the first chair for the Marsalis, introduced “Hellbound Highball,” which had some terrific and extremely fast and high harmonics and some abrasive bowing on the strings below the bridge. Rather like the famous bluegrass “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the strings replicate the sound of a wildly accelerating train: composer Arthur Honneger would have loved it. “Blue Lights on the Bayou” conjures up the traditional New Orleans funeral procession and features some wonderful pizzicatos for the cello. Off-beat syncopations abound in “Rampart St. Row House Rag.” About this, one musician recalled Marsalis having said during rehearsals for the premiere “that the raunchier the playing the better” but at one point quipping “maybe that is enough!”

Felix Mendelssohn was extremely close to his sister Fanny, and her early death, on May 14, 1847, at age 42, devastated him. He was so shattered that he was unable to attend her funeral, and it was many weeks before he could even try to compose. Most of these attempts were left as fragments or sketches, but he managed to complete the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, before his own death on November 4, 1847. Gone is the gossamer world of faeries! This piece is all darkness, with the composer’s grief and rage casting a shadow over all the movements. What works of deeper vein might Mendelssohn have written had he lived past age 38 and welded his heart-ache to a creative vision? Todd Phillips led the players in a somber and probing performance. Tenenbom’s viola and Eddy’s cello contributed greatly to the bleak colors and texture of this work.