No matter how well prepared one may be for an evening with the Juilliard String Quartet, there is just no way to keep from reeling at the impact the premier American ensemble makes.

Its style, a musical thrust-and-parry that carves compelling drama from rapier attacks of great rhythmic impulse, and its method, impeccable balances that would seem calibrated if not for their visceral tension, were unremittingly in evidence Thursday at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena.

But the Juilliard does not set a standard only for artistry, it also leads the way in a philosophy of repertory expansion. So, along with Mozart's Quartet in G, K. 387, and Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," there was Donald Martino's 1983 Quartet, commissioned for the famous four: violinists Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick.

As they played the Martino, one was hard put to separate the work's excellences from the superb performance--so inextricably linked were they. Doubtless, few others will maneuver this masterfully through its frayed-edge ferocity and dizzying metric detours.

An achievement in itself, the score's impetus and materials seem fashioned on a profile uniquely belonging the Juilliard. Aside from some extended passages of desultory somberness toward the end, it is an emotionally stunning piece and one of enormously high craftsmanship. It deals in varieties of conflict, from jutting shards to hyperkinetic agitation to eerie delicacy--all feverishly propelled and at different dynamic levels.

The ensemble took a bit of warming up for the opening Mozart, but once into the Andante there was the wonted synchrony that made those deep, gasping accents, graded introspections and heartbeat rests palpably human. It didn't matter that "Death and the Maiden" was receiving its third local performance in as many months. The Juilliard renewed this Schubertian landmark with its supremely focused voice and vision, finding the path between lyric wonder and rhythmic turbulence. It was one of those experiences that causes eyes to clench shut.

The ensemble will play a different program at Ambassador tonight.

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