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The Calder Quartet excelled in its challenging, esoteric repertoire at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday night.
The Calder Quartet excelled in its challenging, esoteric repertoire at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday night. (Wolf Trap)

-- Steve Kiviat

Pacifica Quartet

There seemed to be two string quartets playing Saturday night at the Kreeger Museum, one outstanding, the other mediocre. The young, award-winning Pacifica Quartet has made a name for itself learning all five knotty, recondite quartets of Elliott Carter -- music that is almost impossibly difficult to play and to listen to. Here, the Pacifica offered the last one (1995), sailing through its metrical challenges and awkward passagework with something approaching glee.

It was a very impressive performance, all the more so after the opening Mozart Quartet in G Major, K. 387. That work was delivered with generic blandness; the group seemed to have nothing to say about the music other than "isn't this pretty"? The dynamic range was indifferently narrow, and first violinist Simin Ganatra had trouble playing chromatic scales evenly. The Pacifica's cellist, Brandon Vamos, is going to require a chiropractor someday if he continues to contort himself in expressive passages, but the violist is an impressive player who delivered sharply characterized solos all evening.

In the Smetana E Minor Quartet, the two groups merged. None of the Pacifica members produce a very big or colorful sound (which this quasi-orchestral piece demands), and the tempo of the virtuoso finale was on the cautious side. But they offered some original interpretive ideas. While they pulled the tempo around a lot, particularly in the first two movements, they did so for defensible musical reasons and with perfect unanimity. The tipsy "accordion" sections in the second movement were especially enjoyable.

-- Robert Battey

Skampa Quartet

Czech composer Leos Janacek believed that the soul of mankind is rooted in its folk music. His theory was tested Friday at the Library of Congress, when the Skampa Quartet, with vocalist-violinist Iva Bittova, presented an eclectic program steeped in the sounds of Janacek's native Moravia.

Hie String Quartet No. 1, from 1923, was the only standard repertoire on the program, and it's hardly a traditional piece. Its four movements follow no formula, but instead unfold in an unpredictable succession of nervous twitches, cries and whispers.

Janacek's inspiration was Tolstoy's melodramatic novella "Kreutzer Sonata," a story that mirrored his own entrapment inside a meaningless marriage, and the Skampa's performance was appropriately prickly and anguished. The players were skilled at the composer's toolbox of special effects, especially "sul ponticello" (bowing at the bridge), an icy version of fingernails on a chalkboard.

For all the rich-toned nuance of the Skampa's playing, Bittova commanded full attention each moment she was onstage. With a voice transforming like a chameleon in Janacek's "Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs," Bittova could be brazen or girlish in songs such as "The Gnat's Wedding," which ended with a comic slap on the hand. Other tunes mixed polka rhythms with melancholy. Bittova blended humor and yearning in a freewheeling improvisation. Her extended vocal techniques -- coos, squeaks, grunts and ululations -- were paired with her own playing of the thumb piano and fiddle. Once, she walked offstage and wailed at the wall.

The Moravian mood was sustained throughout, in pieces that blurred lines between folk and concert music, including "Hopahop Talita," a Gypsy-flavored hoedown, and "Morava," a superbly dark and brooding suite composed by Skampa violinist Pavel Fischer.

-- Tom Huizenga

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