An expanded Ciompi Quartet opened its new season with the typical program sandwich: two familiar composers - Franz Joseph Haydn and Antonín Dvorák - on the outside, and someone new - Peter Scott Lewis - in the middle.
Because of a major accident on I-40 West, I unfortunately arrived late and missed the first two movements of the opening work, Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat, Op.76, No.6. The last two movements showed the kind of adroit teamwork we have come to expect from the Ciompi Quartet. They have been performing a lot of Haydn in the last few years and it shows in their grasp of the composer's subtle and not-so-subtle wit. First Violinist Eric Pritchard had a few intonation problems in some of the big leaps in the Minuet (sure a misnomer although obviously intentional; it is more like a crude peasant clomp), and they clearly had fun in the Finale, which is again full of humor.
Peter Scott Lewis (b.1953) is a California composer who worked with Pritchard some 16 years ago when the latter was violinist with the Alexander Quartet. This was the premiere of his String Quartet No.2, commissioned by the Ciompi Quartet and Duke Performances.
Unfortunately, the short Quartet (16 minutes) was something of a disappointment. There is a reason why the string quartet became the mainstay of chamber music while the string trio seldom made it far. The interplay of four voices is an ideal vehicle for harmonies and coloring. But you couldn't tell it from Lewis's work: through much of the four short movements, the second violin and viola doubled each other and too often the cello filled the bottom like a baroque basso continuo; there was simply too little interplay among the instruments. It somehow did not stir emotionally either, even in the second movement, "Into the Deep," with its muted strings and passionate melody on the first violin. The third movement, "Dramatic Dancing," has a persistent rhythm that might have originated with an Indian dance. The Ciompi, well-rehearsed and comfortable presenting new works, gave it a polished performance.
After intermission, the Ciompi expanded by adding violist Yoram Youngerman, currently on the faculty of ECU, and cellist Darrett Adkins, on the faculty of the Juilliard School, Oberlin Conservatory and Aspen Music Festival, to perform Dvorák's String Sextet in A, Op.48. Composed in 1878, while the composer was at the height of his nationalistic fervor and after composing his immensely successful Slavonic Dances, Op.46, Dvorák infused the work with the Bohemian-inspired rhythms and melodies he so loved. He used the expanded forces to explore the great variety of instrumental coloring possible with the enlarged ensemble. As a violist and an avid chamber music player, Dvorák clearly had fun composing the work and knew a good theme when he had it. The Sextet has the character of having been composed as "music among friends" like Schubert's "Trout" Quintet. The performance was balanced in tone and appropriate passion for a Dvorák work, except in the final movement, a theme and six variations, where in variation three for cello, Raimi did not put much life or variety into the little embellishment around each note of the theme.
But a good time has been had by all, players and audience alike. The Ciompi's next concert, November 20, is dedicated to 20th century composers: Jan Sibelius, Alfred Schnittke and Thomas Adés.