The emotional heart might be the brief middle section where everything suddenly becomes very sustained. The harmonic rhythm (the pace at which chords change) almost enters a state of suspended animation. And then the strings take the piece off in a completely different and very violent direction. It's impossible not to wonder if there's an extra-musical reference being evoked in this piece from 2001.
The players here, performing under the Musicians From Marlboro banner, were admirably, and often rather unbelievably, expert: oboist Rudolph Vrbsky, violinist Susie Park, violist Samuel Rhodes, and cellist Priscilla Lee.
Rhodes brought a bonus track: the local premiere of Carter's Figment IV for solo viola, a punchy work composed last year and dedicated to Rhodes by the composer (whose engagement with dissonance seems unfazed by a 100th birthday on the horizon). This Figment, perhaps five minutes long, centers on certain pitches, but none seemed like home. Playing it a second time would have been the perfect way to give this audience a listening-key for unlocking some of Carter's legendary inscrutability.
Park, Lee, Rhodes and violinist Harumi Rhodes opened with a polished and quite expressive Haydn String Quartet in D major (Op. 20, No. 4, Hob. III:34). And Lee and the two Rhodeses were joined by pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute in Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major (Op. 47). No one is a bigger Schumann fan than this listener, but even I had to admit this is not his most urgent or concentrated artistic statement. Still, each player, in his or her way, made a compelling argument - Lee with her probing phrasing, violinist Rhodes in some charismatic moments of triumph, and Jokubaviciute with a big personality communicated through a sound of great refinement and presence.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or email@example.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.