Thursday evening's concert by the Ciompi Quartet and guest Sicilian pianist Epifanio Comis held the promise of humor - unfortunately not in the right places. Comis's sponsor, la Facultá di Lettere e Filosofia dell'Universitá degli Studi di Catania, provided the four-color glossy program translated into a language bearing only an occasional resemblance to English. The translation of the extensive program notes - by a native Anglophone no less - provided enough howlers to enliven both the pre-concert wait and intermission. Then there were the printed program notes and oral introduction - this time in real English - by the composer to the evening's premiere, String Quartet No.2 by American composer and currently New Hampshire resident James Bolle (b.1931).
Bolle's witty comments about his new work presaged that rare phenomenon, musical humor. But Bolle's wit unfortunately did not significantly extend to the music itself. The first part of the Quartet was entitled Une conversation amusante e galante, according to the composer, ".the title of a collection of pieces by a very minor 18th century composer, but none of this music itself is used , because I find it too intolerable-the kind of thing public radio stations (those few who still play music) play after midnight." The movement was itself supposed to represent a witty conversation and consisted of abrupt and truncated musical phrases tossed back and forth among the four instruments. An affect that began as amusing was so overworked that it completely lost its spark, sounding more like the Tower of Babel than a round table discussion in the Algonquin tearoom. A short interlude between this part and the second was deliberately diatonic and bland, according to the composer meant to serve as "taste-bud rejuvenator." The second part, entitled "The Prisoner's Song," was again full of truncated phrases, but this time many were "borrowed" from other compositions, including two snippets from Beethoven quartets and recurring references to the title with quotes from the old tune "Oh, if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly." The work was simply too long for the material, and even the dedicated playing by the Ciompi couldn't sustain interest. Another New England composer of a bygone era did it better.
Comis, who comes from the teaching faculty of the Vincenzo Bellini Conservatory in Catania, Sicily, is visiting Duke in an exchange with the Ciompi scheduled for next year. He tackled Liszt's Sonata in b minor in a precise but somewhat fussy manner and with a little too much hammering. This is a huge and extremely difficult work and it takes a broad view not to get lost in the details. Comis got the notes right, but we missed the grand architectonic planning that this work requires. The provided notes on the Liszt Sonata were worthy of Robert Benchley's The Treasurer's Report and were incomprehensible to everybody, including members of Duke's Music Faculty.
To round out the eclectic program came Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op.44. This work is Schumann's homage to his beloved Clara, a lyrical, joyous work and veritable sing-along. The performers elected to play the first movement with extreme elasticity, that is to say molto rubato. While the constant slowing down for the second theme-in all its recurrences-and speeding up again for the main one, is a valid interpretive decision, it simply didn't fly for us. Unfortunately, except for the slow movement, the rest of the performance was too stern, even heavy, and did not sing enough.
Speaking of singing: the Liszt Sonata brought out a possible weakness and/or need for adjustment of the Steinway. The notes in the lowest register had a distinctly metallic "after-taste."