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The official opening concert of the Ciompi Quartet's 2006-7 Duke University series was a sort of homecoming on two fronts. The quartet had recently returned from a ten-day concert tour of Germany, as they continue to expand their notoriety around the world and spread the Duke name as a force in the arts. They shared part of their program with half of the Borromeo String Quartet. Violinist/violist Nicholas Kitchen and his wife, cellist Yeesun Kim, joined the locals for the second string sextet of Johannes Brahms. Kitchen grew up in Durham and has had a long, personal relationship with the Ciompi Quartet as he began his musical studies with founder Giorgio Ciompi. Fortunately for local chamber music fans, Kitchen and the Borromeo Quartet frequently return to this area and will continue to do so in the next few years.
The Ciompi Quartet has a longstanding tradition of beginning their Duke concert series with a string quartet by Haydn, in homage to the composer who is universally recognized as the "father of the string quartet." Many of Haydn's quartets have a descriptive, fanciful name attached to them in addition to the dry opus number designation. The one they chose this night is known as "The Joke," although a more appropriate moniker might be "The Tease" if you based it on the final Presto movement.
The seemingly simplistic, almost banal motives of much of this quartet belie the musical skill necessary to bring this off as an effective listening experience. The quartet started off with conviction and a beautifully rounded tone that set the standard for much of the evening. First violinist Eric Prichard was especially convincing and comical with the vulgarity of the exaggerated glissandi in the trio of the scherzo. The final movement was a spirited Rondo that wasn't quite sure when to end. False cadences and prolonged silences gave it a deliciously teasing and flippant quality that elicited laughter from the nearly packed house.
If Haydn was all sunshine, walks-on-the-beach, and cute puppies, nothing can be further from that environment than Dmitri Shostakovich in general, and specifically his thirteenth String Quartet. As everyone must know by now, Shostakovich is one of the two big birthday boys for the year 2006, Mozart being the other and the Russian's elder by 150 years.
Many of Shostakovich's works have movements containing his trademark dark angst and also brilliant fast, bright and energetic moments. Not so for this quartet; you might as well have a warning on the program that this is not recommended for those prone to melancholy or depression. This is a work of unrelenting tension, despair and hopelessness, and then it only gets worse! This type of music is tremendously difficult for even a soloist, so for an ensemble to emotionally click and convey the depth of the composer's intent is quite miraculous. The Ciompi Quartet plumbed the depths of this tortured brilliance as one cohesive psyche and produced some of their best playing.
The string sextet is one of those musical genres that has a handful of accepted masterpieces that deservedly keep getting played whenever you have such a group of extraordinary musicians in one place. Brahms wrote two of these, with the G major being the later one. Nicholas Kitchen took up the viola, second to Jonathan Bagg and Yeesun Kim did the same with respect to cellist Fred Raimi. Collaborations of this sort between established ensembles and guests, regardless of the talents of all involved, can sometimes be a risky endeavor, and this performance was a good example. The opening movement was somewhat ragged as it seemed that the six were still getting used to each other. There were also some intonation problems with the violins and much of the inner voices and secondary motives failed to break through the thick texture. This proved to be a temporary situation as each successive movement seemed to grow and glow as everyone settled into a comfortable and cohesive unit.
The Ciompi Quartet starts out another year with their trademark brand of balanced and fair programming. While maintaining an allegiance to the great works of the past, they continue to champion new compositions, many by local composers, as well as featuring guest artists, many of whom are internationally known. This year's schedule is no exception. Visit their website (http://www.ciompi.org), see what's coming up, and support one of our great musical treasures.