If one of the responsibilities of a string quartet, or any medium for classical music for that matter, is to ensure the perpetuation of the genre, then surely the Ciompi Quartet has one more element that puts it at the forefront.
The quartet’s performance at Temple Emanuel was yet another indication of its mastery of and commitment to its art. In a program that veered from what most concertgoers would consider the norm, the quartet challenged its audience of about 100 to rethink its idea of typical classical music by choosing three pieces by three 20th Century composers: Darius Milhaud, Erwin Schulhoff, and Paul Schoenfield.
Earlier, the quartet had given presentations to students of Greensboro’s American Hebrew Academy and B’Nai Shalom, underscoring the group’s educational mission and effort to be accessible to audiences of all ages. Ciompi, the string-quartet-in-residence at Duke University, seems as comfortable in an educational setting as it is onstage; and they are supremely comfortable onstage. And no wonder. They have performed the world over, as far away as China and as near as Greensboro’s own Eastern Music Festival. The poise and virtuosity that their talent, toil, and travels have availed them was apparent in their Monday evening performance.
Fred Raimi, cello player and this night spokesman for the group, introduced each piece with information about the composer and his music. Playing on a cello made in 1691, Raimi balanced his intensity in playing with an avuncular style when communicating with an audience. Explaining the works of modern composers isn’t always easy to do, but Raimi gave the audience just enough information to make the works pertinent and let the music do the rest. Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku on violins and Jonathan Bagg on viola joined Raimi in producing what has to be a highlight — and a coup — of Music for a Great Space’s 18 seasons of concerts.
The string quartet is a test of any composer’s music, and surely these three composers came out shining like diamonds under the bows of these amazing musicians.
Milhaud’s String Quartet No. 7, Op. 87 (1925) is a piece that Raimi described as containing “a clash, but ... a resolution.” The musicians breezed through the clash and its polytonalities effortlessly, and made the resolution a commanding finish to the first piece. As powerful as the first piece was, what was to come was even more phenomenal.
In Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for a String Quartet (1923), four movements were posed as dance rhythms: Viennese Waltz, Serenade, Tango, Czech Dance, and Tarantella, which — Raimi explained — is a frantic dance originally designed to sweat out poison from the bite of a tarantula — if that tells you anything about the pace of the piece. One would like to believe that somewhere, Schulhoff, who died in a German concentration camp in 1942, was also dancing to the rhythms of his own composition. The intensity of this work literally lifted musicians off their chairs at points and left the audience amazed at the clarity and physicality that Ciompi brings to its performances.
One of the miraculous things about Ciompi is its ability to sound like a full string section — with four soloists. There was stroking so delicate it seemed to barely graze a violin string and mad attacks on a cello that made one wonder how a centuries-old instrument could withstand such striking, plucking, and punching. The resulting combination was a sound that was intense and, at moments, other-worldly.
After an intermission, the quartet returned with Schoenfield’s Tales from Chelm, four pieces for string quartet (1947), in which, in the style of the avant-garde, Schoenfield utilizes a narrator. In this role, longtime Community Theatre of Greensboro director Mitchel Sommers filled the bill and complimented the performance with his natural acting and storytelling talent, relating Schoenfield’s farcical tales of life in a small village. It was a comical and delightful collaboration, and Sommers’ interpretation seemed to amuse even the serious musical talents onstage. Indeed, the smile on Fred Raimi’s face as Sommers worked his magic was entertaining in itself.
After the reading of each fable, Ciompi responded with a story of sound during which one could close one’s eyes and see in stunning detail the events that had been described. Fingers dancing up and down strings, bows tilting and swinging through the air, and bodies swaying with each decisive note meshed perfectly with the narrative and the vernacular that was Tales from Chelm.
Earlier in the evening Raimi had asked, “Are you familiar with these pieces?” Even for those who weren’t, this unforgettable performance will be a memory that will make three composers and four musicians very hard to forget.