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Lydian's 'World' concert touches on Cuba, Taiwan

The Lydian String Quartet, (from left) cellist Joshua Gordon, violinists Judith Eissenberg and Daniel Stepner, and violist Mary Ruth Ray, began its "Around the World" series at Brandeis.

WALTHAM -- The string quartet is, by its nature, a conservative organization and the Lydian String Quartet's "Around the World in a String Quartet" series didn't begin very far from home.

At Brandeis University's Slosberg Recital Hall on Saturday, in the first concert in a planned five-year series, the Lydians programmed pieces by a Brandeis faculty member with Taiwanese heritage, an exiled Cuban now living in America, and Beethoven. If the choices were not outlandish, the performances were top-notch, as one expects from this group, Brandeis' resident quartet since 1980.

Jazz composer Paquito D'Rivera's "Village Street Quartet," a 25-minute piece written in 2000 in tribute to the ethnic street music he heard in New York City after he moved from Havana, evolves from a mournful melody in the muted viola, echoed by the other players, through some academic passage-work, to a tango, then a wilder dance in a klezmer style, back to another tango with pizzicatti. In the final minutes, it has the players drumming their hands on their instruments, and ending with a loud foot stomp. The music stopped, to these ears, just when it was letting itself go.

Brandeis composition teacher Yu-Hui Chang was represented in "Shadow Chase" (2003), a 15-minute work that self-consciously draws on Beethoven's Quartet in C-minor, with which it was paired on the program. The piece displays each instrument and builds to an intense climax in the jagged, pointillist style familiar from much mid-20th-century music, with no discernible folk roots. It would be interesting to hear Chang's music with Chinese instruments.

The Beethoven C-minor quartet, Op. 131, one of his late quartets, is an ultimate test of string quartet playing. It is a gigantic, sprawling, seven-movement work in which the master darts from one idiom to another, from fugue to aria to Hungarian dance. An occasional flatness marred the final minutes. Otherwise, the quartet -- Daniel Stepner and Judith Eissenberg, violins; Mary Ruth Ray, viola; and Joshua Gordon, cello -- played beautifully , never more so than in the opening movement, a slow-motion fugue with suspended harmonies of an almost mystical intensity. Maybe this is as far abroad as one needs to go.