When composers freed themselves from servitude to royalty and aristocracy, they gained many freedoms - including the freedom to come in late with their commissions.
The third of this season's First Light concerts by the Ciompi Quartet was supposed to premiere Anthony Kelley's Reflections on Three American Sports, but as first violinist Eric Pritchard said, Kelley is apparently writing some extra innings and they hope to be able to premiere it next season.
Instead the Ciompi substituted the String Quartet No.8 by Peter Sculthorpe (b.1929), considered one of Australia's most important composers. Sculthorpe attempts to create an "Australian" sound, actually more of an Indonesian-Australian blend. In the Quartet No.8 he uses rhythms and simple structure of Balinese folk melodies. The five movement work opens and closes with a cello solo, flowing and sad, based on the song-play arja and given an outstanding performance by Fred Raimi. By contrast, the second and fourth movements are based on the highly rhythmic rice-pounding music called ketungan. To try to make the music sound less European-Western, Sculthorpe employs all kinds of devices to make the strings into percussion and rhythm instruments. Besides the usual pizzicato, he uses, tapping the strings with the wood of the bow (col legno), and even tapping the tailpiece and the instrument's body with the back of the bow or the fingers. The problem is that no matter how many such devices he employed, the music still sounded Western. But the work is a lot of fun and readily accessible on first hearing and was even interesting to watch. The Ciompi must have worked hard to master the page of detailed instructions at the beginning of the score on how to handle the percussive aspects.
The program opened with one of the Ciompi's mainstays, Maurice Ravel's Quartet in F. In spite of the fact that by now they probably can play this popular work in their sleep, the familiarity did not breed contempt. The performance was fresh, spirited and exciting with meticulous attention to detail that brought out subtle details in tempo and dynamics.
After intermission, pianist William Ransom joined the Ciompi in the Piano Quintet, Op.14 by Camille Saint-Saëns, a work rarely performed and as it turned out, with good reason. Written when the composer, a child prodigy, was 20, it contains echoes of Mendelssohn and has the character of a reduced piano concerto. Saint-Saëns was a spectacular pianist, and most of the time the strings just play in imitation or an innocuous rum-tum-tum accompaniment, to the flamboyantly virtuosic piano part.
Ransom has an outstanding reputation as a pianist and his technical wizardry was impressive. Whether he is also a good musician, we sadly cannot tell on the basis of this composition. We hope he will return to play a more musically rewarding work.