CAMBRIDGE — Since becoming artistic director of the Boston Chamber Music Society, violist Marcus Thompson has taken advantage of his other position, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to curate programs built around connections, both solid and speculative, between music and science. On Saturday, the theme was the sun: “Musical Helios” fused a symposium (featuring astrophysicist Leon Golub and atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel) with a dawn-to-dusk collection of solar-themed pieces casting their own varied lights.
The nickname “Sunrise” was given to Franz Joseph Haydn's B-flat major String Quartet (Op. 76, No. 4) by someone other than the composer, though the opening — half-steps creeping up like rays over the horizon, followed by a full, vigorous gleam — makes for a plausible daybreak. The players, though, channeled a different kind of illumination. Violinists Ida Levin and Harumi Rhodes, joined by Thompson and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, combined for a crisp, honed sound that was less the warmth of the sun than the incandescence of the Enlightenment.
Sunlight glinted off the water in Claude Debussy's “La Mer,” in André Caplet's four-hand piano version, etched with solid flair by Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson. Debussy's sea pictures are vivid in their pictorial evocation but also elusive in their fluid harmonies and structure. On piano, the images became almost conceptual, like a photograph enlarged until the graininess turns abstract.
Stephen Hartke's 1988 piano quartet “The King of the Sun” played with elusiveness, too. The framework is all cross-purposed cross-references (traced by musicologist Michael Cuthbert in the pre-concert symposium) — a medieval canon (“le ray au soleyl”), a modern mistranslation of its title, paintings by Joan Miró that lend their titles to the work's five movements. The music conceals as much as it reveals: circling, fugitive near-repetitions, or overlapping stop-and-go rhythms hiding the beat under a stream of conflicting data. The performance by Rhodes, Thompson, Ramakrishnan, and Hodgkinson was sharp, subtly shaded, and precise. The effect was one of sumptuous misdirection, an afterimage only hinting at the sun's blaze.
The finale brought a different kind of oblique light. Ottorino Respighi's “Il Tramonto” sets (in translation) Shelley's “The Sunset,” a tale of lovers, one who dies, one who lives on. Scored for soprano (Karyl Ryczek) and string quartet (Levin, Rhodes, Thompson, and Ramakrishnan), the music is fluently operatic but measured, restrained. Ryczek's glossy voice floated in the space between recitative narration and full-out aria. Cast in the twilight between the end of hope and the end of life, Shelley and Respighi trade brilliance for eloquent haze. Despair, they suggest, is not unlike the sun: inescapably present, but too painful to look at directly.