Five-time Grammy award winner Dawn Upshaw appeared Thursday night as part of the Secrest Artists Series on the Wake Forest University campus. Upshaw performed with the award-winning Brentano String Quartet, founded at the Juilliard School in 1992 and still boasting three of its original members. The musicians brought a rarified performance that one does not often get the opportunity to hear in this area. Presented in the superb acoustical setting of the Brendle Recital Hall, it will be a concert that all of those in attendance will remember for a long time.

Both Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello) are known for their collaborations with contemporary composers, and Thursday evening’s performance was no exception. The five musicians performed the world premiere of a monodrama: Dido Reimagined, a response to “Dido’s Lament” by Purcell (also known as “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas). Pulitzer-winning composer Melinda Wagner and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann were in the audience and held a Q&A at the conclusion of the performance.

The music in the first half was comprised of late Renaissance to early and middle Baroque works by a wonderful collection of famous and not-so-famous composers: Henry Purcell, Matthew Locke, John Dowland, Thomas Tomkins, William Byrd, and Robert Johnson (who wrote music for Shakespeare plays). The instrumental works (Purcell, Locke, Tomkins, and Johnson) were originally written for a consort of viols (played here on modern instruments), while the vocal works were for voice and lute, with Stephen Prutsman or Brentano member Steinberg named as arrangers.

All five musicians, while maintaining a wonderful individuality, formed a coherent whole dedicated to engaging the audience in intimate music making. Upshaw’s singing was completely devoted to the texts and musical nuances. The musicians played with incredible freedom yet maintained cohesion, breathing as a living organism, each responding to the others’ individual leadings.

The instrumental works were short (less than five minutes) and multi-sectional, which provided different characters and moods. Dance rhythms infused some (Locke’s Courante from Suite No. 2), while others contained some surprising and painful dissonances (Purcell’s Fantasia in C minor). Perhaps some concertgoers found the playing a bit overrefined; others reveled in the magical nuance and dedication of the quartet.

Upshaw’s singing was magnificent, completely engaging with the text and bringing it alive. Maybe only one song was truly upbeat (Byrd’s “Though Amaryllis dance in green”). Most songs were on the dark side, like Dowland’s “Weep you no more, sad fountains,” and the very famous “Dido’s Lament.”

After intermission, the premiere of Wagner and Fleischmann’s Dido Reimagined was presented. Fleischmann’s program notes capture the intent of the composition: “Melinda and I have attempted to make . . . A piece of music drama that is simultaneously journey and meditation. A reflection on the power of love, on the passage of time, on loss, resilience, and the restorative power of a disappearing world.”

Several printed “Epigraphs” set the stage; one declares, “Some lovers do not commit suicide.” The ensuing 40-minute composition is comprised of five songs with frequent fantastical interludes from the strings. The strong emotions range from sad and dark, to gentle musings, to concluding affirmation – the text is more evocative than narrative.

Upshaw’s presentation of the text, mostly sung, but sometimes cast in a declamatory fashion, colored the words. She seemed to draw on an unlimited range of vocal textures and timbres. Wagner’s writing for the strings made use of many extended techniques including glissandos, tapping the strings with the bows, creepy harmonics, and violent articulations, all in service to the text.

The music was sometimes tonally based, as when singer and instruments ended on the same pitch or on a recognizable chord. But most of it was colorful without a recognizable pitch center. An amazing array of textures were presented, and the instruments came together or went their own way, again, usually connected to the words. The result is a moving composition, refreshingly new, yet steeped in centuries-old questions about life and love.

Dido Reimagined was commissioned by more than a half dozen organizations, including the Secrest Artists Series. That guarantees at least that many performances, and I would relish the chance to hear the work again.