Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus played host on Sunday afternoon to those masters of the modern idiom, London's Arditti String Quartet.
The Arditti delivers its demanding goods with the elegance of tone and technical finish that other, more tradition-oriented groups would provide for Mozart, Brahms or Bartok.
And while none of those names appeared on Sunday's Coleman Concerts program, the influence of Bartok was strong, first in Henri Dutilleux's well-crafted, low-calorie "Ainsi la nuit" (1976), with its darkly gentle pluckings and delicate glissandos within the context of a series of sometimes Debussy-reminiscent miniatures.
Bartok's spirit was subsequently dishonored by the endless twanging, snapping, touching, thrumming and perhaps breathing on the strings in Sofia Gubaidulina's Third Quartet (1987), a numbingly pointless, sometimes inaudible exercise in ennui. With the energetic Third Quartet of American renegade Conlon Nancarrow, written for the Ardittis in 1987, the concert came to life.
Nancarrow's music is unconcerned with dynamic subtleties or oddities of execution: It proceeds from his improbably complex rhythms and, in this instance, from his respect for the bow and its multiplicity of uses.
The post-intermission portion was devoted to Alban Berg's 1927 "Lyric Suite," which on another program might have sounded like the last word in modernism and which in the wrong hands can last forever. Here, it seemed all too short. But then, time does fly when you're having fun.
But serially, folks, it takes an ensemble like the Arditti Quartet--violinists Irvine Arditti and Graeme Jennings, violist Garth Knox, cellist Rohan de Saram--to keep Berg's magnum chamber opus from sounding glum and gray.