In terms of choosing a calling card to send out into the world, the Curtis Institute of Music could hardly do better than the Aizuri Quartet. Curtis' quartet-in-residence played a recital Tuesday night previewing a tour that begins Friday in Mexico City, continues to Costa Rica and Chile (including a stop at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago), and ends with a different program in Germany and Austria.
Whatever else it does for diplomacy, the Aizuri Quartet planted a flag in rare artistic soil at its Field Concert Hall recital. For being a remarkable string town, Philadelphia has produced remarkably few great resident string quartets. What was clear in a tough program of Haydn, Webern, Brahms, and a new work by recent Curtis alumna Gabriella Smith is that the Aizuri - which returns to Curtis for a second season in the fall - is in full possession of that most elusive of string quartet qualities: the balance between charisma of the individual and cohesion of the collective.
Not that its powers weren't tested. The four were joined by violist (and Curtis president) Roberto Díaz in the Brahms Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 111, and although it wasn't his presence that upset the group's dynamics, this was an interpretation with a bit more work to do. Small technical matters arose, but the reasons for their presence were the right ones. The players took chances with some bold expressive ideas, and if there was an occasional miss, it was very occasional and easy to dismiss.
The bigger ideas took shape all night in moments like this: an absolutely seamless back-and-forth dialogue between violinists Miho Saegusa and Zoë Martin-Doike in Haydn's String Quartet in B Minor, Hob. III:37; a beautifully liquid sound character in Webern's Langsamer Satz; solo moments in the Brahms from violist Ayane Kozasa that were smooth as glass while still projecting; the gorgeously shaped and placed pizzicato notes of cellist Karen Ouzounian, also in the Brahms.
Smith's new piece dazzled. Carrot Revolution was commissioned by Curtis and the Barnes Foundation, inspired somewhat by works at that museum. Generally high-voltage and wildly imaginative, the work nearly reinvents the sound of a string quartet - from percussion group to string ensemble and back again. Each successive section reestablished a new texture or a more complex repeated rhythmic scheme until a stretch where the music drooped - literally, the pitch slid down - and the energy relaxed.
It's hard to think of another composer who has so radically changed the sound vocabulary of the string quartet while still making it seem absolutely idiomatic; this revolution is percussive, chantlike, feathery - even puckish. Until now, it had never occurred to me that a violin could hiccup, much less that I might be pleased to hear it.