The Mivos Quartet, formed in 2008 at the Manhattan School of Music, has put admirable focus and resources into expanding the string quartet repertoire, conducting workshops and competitions for new composers. Its all-British program Sunday at the Phillips Collection seemed a bit musty, then; the most recent piece, Thomas Adès’s “Arcadiana,” was written 20 years ago, and it was followed by an arrangement of a choral work by the Renaissance composer William Byrd and Benjamin Britten’s Quartet No. 3.
Adès is one of Britain’s leading composers, and his works have been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, the Emerson Quartet and the Berlin, New York and Los Angeles philharmonics. His music is influenced by Britten, but it is more severe and dissonant. In “Arcadiana,” the rhythmic challenges — individual notes changing on internal, asymmetrical fractions of each beat — tax the players’ concentration but add up to little more than a feeling of muddiness. Like Britten, Adès always has both a clear formal design and external artistic influences (in this case Greek mythology, a Poussin painting, Schubert and Mozart), but one wishes for more attractive musical ideas to go along with the aesthetics.