A few weeks back the Sunday New York Times had an “Arts and Leisure” feature article that examined the continuing popularity of the string quartets of Beethoven. The Takács String Quartet (which played on the Duke Chamber Arts Society series last year) was playing the entire cycle. An enormous line snaked around Lincoln Center as anxious patrons waited for the ticket window to open. One person passing by was said to have asked, “Is some famous rock group playing here?”

Beethoven’s string quartets have always been a yardstick of the technical and interpretive mastery of even the most experienced ensembles. They have also always been a safe bet for a good turnout at the concert. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a saturation point, and the more recordings and concerts of this monumental body of work there are, the more people seem to want. On March 12 the Chamber Arts Society welcomed the Orion String Quartet to Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater for its Durham debut. An early and a late Beethoven quartet flanked the second of six string quartets by Béla Bartók.

Named after the heavenly Orion constellation, this group was formed seventeen years ago and has a wide and eclectic repertoire. I had just heard Orion cellist Timothy Eddy at the Greenhouse Celebration at UNC-Greensboro over the first weekend of March, and I was mesmerized by his incredible talent and the force of his personality. But here, in Durham, he was a team player all the way, blending beautifully with the three others. This quartet, like the Emerson String Quartet, rotates the first and second violin chairs, but the Orion goes one step further as the two violinists are brothers – Daniel and Todd Phillips – and both play Stradivarius violins. The quartet is rounded out by violist Steven Tenenbom, who, according to the program notes, plays a viola made in 1560!

Six quartets comprise the Opus 18 collection, and the program began with the fifth. This is a work still very much steeped in 18th-century classicism, and much of its form and harmonic language is still in the same tradition as Haydn and Mozart.

Before I continue I’m afraid that I need to make a big digression. My concentration during the first half of the concert was severely compromised by unfortunate accompaniment to the onstage music. I checked the scores for both the Beethoven and Bartók quartets the next day and I did not see anywhere a part for candy wrapper…. The laws of physics apply within the confines of the concert hall. Slower does NOT mean quieter. What causes people who would normally open a candy in two seconds anywhere else suddenly to attempt to set world records for slow unwrapping? While this may seem unduly harsh, when this noise pollution goes on for 40 minutes it can totally ruin a performance. In most movie theaters they now have a notice on the screen asking the audience to be considerate and refrain from unnecessary talking. Perhaps something of that sort might be considered for chamber music program notes in the future. OK. End of rant.

Bartók was part of the nationalistic movement that swept up many of the late-19th/early-20th-century composers. Much of this took place in central Europe, and Bartók was one of its strongest proponents. What is remarkable about Bartók’s compositional process is that he was able to combine folk elements with modern harmonies, newly devised string techniques, and a rhythmic drive that is unequalled even to this day. The second of his string quartets, although early in his output, has all the characteristics of what makes these quartets masterpieces. The Orion Quartet gave a radiant reading that was mystical and inward when needed and exuberant and extroverted in the middle movement, the Allegro section.

Even in a performance that is beautifully played in every way, there may be one particular aspect or moment that rises above even that high standard. When that turns out to be what outwardly seems to be the “easiest” part of a quartet, it is a rare occurrence. Beethoven’s Op. 132 Quartet in A minor is part of the “late” quartets which have attained an almost religious standing. Translated from the German, the third movement of the work is subtitled “Sacred song of thanks from a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode.” This is a very long, almost lethargic movement consisting of sublime but slowly changing harmonies. One of the hardest things for a string player is to sustain intensity, passion, and movement in quiet, slow passages. In lesser hands this can end up as a long, boring, aimless exercise. When the Orion Quartet played it, Beethoven was speaking to us. You could feel his anguish, hear his lamentations over his deafness and, finally his acceptance and peace.