When you see the term “Opus one,” you are likely to think of an early, perhaps slightly immature creation in a composer’s output. It can even conjure up images of the beginning of a musical journey. However, since 1998, when you see the name OPUS ONE, the definition changes completely.

OPUS ONE is the collective name for four of the leading musicians of our time who came together to form what is counter-intuitively described as a piano quartet. This ensemble comprises Ida Kavafian, violin, Steven Tenenbom, viola, Peter Wiley, cello, and Anne-Marie McDermott, piano. These remarkably accomplished musicians’ resumes took up nearly four large pages in the program notes, so it would be futile to attempt to try to condense such an avalanche of credits and honors. Suffice it to say that chamber music runs through the blood of these players.

OPUS ONE made a return visit to the Triangle area with a sold-out performance at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater. In addition to the consummate skill and musicianship of this group, their programming was just about as perfect a combination of works that could be performed using the piano quartet configuration. We heard a well-known favorite, a contemporary work written for OPUS ONE, a composition that while certainly not in mothballs is somewhat inexplicably neglected, plus a generous encore as a bonus.

Mozart’s Quartet in G minor for Piano and Strings is one of the most popular works in the master’s chamber music output. It is a microcosm of his genius and encompasses a wide range of style and emotion. Mozart was a master at presenting somber and serious music that still had within it space for a joyous element. Like life itself, this complexity is of course what set him apart from the rest of the 18th century rabble. This is especially true when he employs the key of G minor which is emphatically laid down in the first movement. Pianist McDermott is one of those pianists who, within the context of piano plus string ensembles, seems to physically want to join the guys with the bows. She is in such command of her part that she appears to conduct the score with her upper body and face. The intimate delicacy of the Andante movement led into the jubilant concluding Rondo erasing any lingering darkness of the opening movement.

Violinist Kavafian introduced the second work – the Third Piano Quartet of George Tsontakis. Commissioned by OPUS ONE and the Music From Angel Fire Festival in New Mexico, this is a work in transition, as the composer admits that he is still making changes even after its September 2005 premiere. This is unabashedly derivative of Debussy, yet also has distinctive elements of its own. Contemporary music should not be like medicine, and this imaginative work left me with the most important impression to take away – a strong desire to hear it again.

The “American” Quartet, the “Dumky” Ttrio, the celebrated piano quintet – are all masterpieces of Antonín Dvorák’s chamber music output, yet there is no musical reason why these perpetually played works should take precedence over his rarely played/recorded Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings. The second movement itself has enough melodic beauty to be used as the basis for a dozen more compositions. There is such a wide variety of moods, tempos and contrasting emotions that it is as if you are on a journey through every human experience. The playing went beyond virtuosic into the realm of a personal message from Dvorák to each listener.

Encores are most often quick, flashy showstoppers that show off the prodigious chops of the musicians. Not here. OPUS ONE returned for the long Andante movement from Brahms’ C minor quartet. Cellist Peter Wiley played the unimaginably beautiful theme of this movement with such passion and exquisite tone that this performance would have been enough for the whole evening. The rest of the strings did however come in and they all left the audience in a state of musical bliss.