For its 23rd annual Ellen Black Winston Memorial Concert in Fletcher Opera Theater, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild brought to town the Orion String Quartet and clarinetist David Krakauer. Together the five musicians designed an entire program with an Eastern European flavor – but with a twist. The two standard pieces on the program, Haydn’s String Quartet in C, Op.74/1 and Beethoven’s Op. 59/2, contain Hungarian and Russian folk elements respectively. Programmed with them were two contemporary works featuring the Gypsy and Jewish traditions of the region, Magyar Madness, a new clarinet quintet by David Del Tredici and “K’vakarat,” the third movement from Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, further modified by Krakauer with the composer’s approval. (Isaac the Blind was a famous fourteenth-century French Kabbalist Rabbi.) K’vakarat is the title of the last verse of a prayer sung during the Jewish High Holidays.)

The Quartet – violinist brothers Daniel and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy – has been around for 20 years and serves as the quartet-in-residence of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The Orion has an impressive record of commissioning and premiering new music. The ensemble’s energy, precision and enthusiasm was impressive, re-enforcing its stellar reputation.

The Quartet opened the program with the Haydn in a lively performance that highlighted Haydn’s characteristic little surprises, humor and, of course, ethnic flavor.

Lots of folks play the clarinet, but very few like David Krakauer. There is little if anything Krakauer can’t do with a clarinet – in any style. He can make it speak with power and delicacy across its range in a variety of foreign “languages.” His performance group, Klezmer Madness! has taken the musical heritage of the stetl (the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe ravaged by the Russian Cossacks and ultimately eliminated by Hitler and Stalin) and helped revitalize it into a living tradition.

Del Tredici’s Magyar Madness was commissioned by Music Accord for Krakauer and the Orion String Quartet. Del Tredici, who was in the audience for the Quintet’s second performance, best-known for a set of charming tone pictures for orchestra and amplified soprano based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, started his compositional career as a dedicated serialist, but has mellowed over the years into a neo-Romantic, of which the new work is a good example. The composer was clearly familiar with Krakauer’s playing, since the 40-minute-long Quintet highlights his particular interests and special virtuosity. Except for the short second movement, the clarinet hardly ever rests. Krakauer actually wanted a Klezmer-inspired third movement, although Del Tredici reports: “I told him ‘Oy vey! Klezmer I can’t do, but Hungarian I’ll try.” Instead, the final movement is a rondo, based on a brief Gypsy melody, in which the episodes comprise fiendishly difficult riffs encompassing everything from Eastern European ethnicity to jazz. While it was wonderful to hear the breadth and scope of Krakauer’s playing, the final movement was far too long for such slight thematic material. The refrain was repeated with multiple exclamation points, but not significantly developed. There were, however, some stunning moments, as when the clarinetist leaves to play offstage in a hushed dialogue with the muted strings playing an eerie pianissimo.

After intermission, Krakauer returned with the Orion Quartet to perform Golijov’s K’vakarat. Krakauer spun out the melismatic melodies with fervor and magic. He made his instrument replicate every nuance of the human cantoral voice. For us, this short work was the highlight of the concert.

The long afternoon ended with Beethoven’s second “Razumovsky” Quartet. Somehow everything in the performance coalesced, bringing new excitement and insight into an otherwise over-familiar work.