The Ciompi Quartet - our quartet - which is to say, the distinguished string ensemble that has enriched the lives of music lovers in central North Carolina since 1965 - wrapped up its season with a splendid concert in the Ernest W. Nelson Music Room on Duke University's East Campus. The presenter was Duke Performances.
As always, the program was a bracing mix of old and new. First up was music by Mozart: the Quartet No. 21 in D, K.575, the first of the so-called "Prussian Quartets," three works that wound up being the composer's farewell to the form he had done so much to advance. These valedictory pieces, which are also called the "Cello Quartets," are, as program annotator (and CQ cellist) Fred Raimi observes, somewhat less complex than their immediate predecessors, perhaps reflecting a new level of refined maturity - "new" being relative, in this composer's case! The playing - based on the radiantly rich and warm floor provided by Raimi, and showing violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku and violist Jonathan Bagg at the tops of their respective games - was exceptionally fine, revealing the music as full of melody and melodic invention. Admirers of outstanding quartet playing in this region have many opportunities to hear world-class ensembles realize world-class music; in this performance, the members of the Ciompi Quartet again demonstrated that they, too, are worthy of inclusion among the most exalted world-class groups.
There was more Prussian fare at the end of this concert; thanks to a suggestion from visiting pianist James Tocco, a dazzling and insightful keyboard virtuoso who is (justifiably) as celebrated for his prowess in chamber music as he is for his solo and orchestral work. He told the members of the ensemble about the rarely-heard Piano Quintet in D, Op. 45, by Eduard Franck, which replaced the quintet by George Enescu, previously announced. Did we say Caesar Franck? No, the name is Eduard, born in Breslau in 1817, who studied with Mendelssohn and who might have been as well-known as his more celebrated mentors and colleagues but for the fact that his music didn't start to be published till fairly late in his life. Based on this substantial score, that's a pity, for what we heard is a glowing piece with an almost non-stop piano part, handsomely appointed with string writing of comparable appeal. At the outset, the piece seems somewhat dark in hue, but the fast second movement is buoyant and upbeat. The constantly-engaging andante is somewhat hymn- or chorale-like. And the finale is dramatic, energetic, and exciting throughout. There was a big ovation at the end, partly for this rare and rarely-heard score - surely it was "new" music for many if not all in attendance - but also for the virtuoso players, the Ciompi Quartet and the visiting keyboard scholar.
In between came the world premiere of a new cello quintet by Duke's own Scott Lindroth (b.1958), a composer who currently serves as the University's Vice Provost for the Arts. This String Quintet is his third composition for the Ciompi Quartet, and it's been immensely rewarding to experience his music in these players' interpretations as he has grown and matured.
One can hardly let this pass without commenting on the delight of having this and many other living composers in our midst. From their earliest days, struggling with beginning pieces, music students have wondered what composers really wanted, what they really meant. When these folks walk among us, we can ask them. Imagine visiting with Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms before taking up one of their scores! Here, the artists and the audience, too, could walk right up to Lindroth and talk with him about his music - and many did. How cool is that?
The fifth part was played by cellist Ashley Bathgate, of Bang-on-a-Can fame; it was her second local appearance here this month, as she'd performed at UNC, in another new work (by Stefan Litwin), on April 5. Lindroth provided some radiant lines for her, lines she played with eloquence and passion befitting the new work. The rest of the cast was comparably strong as the piece, in two movements, more or less, ran its generally powerful course. In retrospect, the opening movement seems the dominant one, for it is hard-driven (perhaps in the manner of parts of Steve Reich's Different Trains, but never quite so mechanically propelled). Along the way the new music exudes considerable tension that builds and builds inexorably to the point where the transition to the second movement comes as a considerable relief. The work winds down in a thoroughly consoling and often uplifting way, ending softly, comfortingly. The response was warm and prolonged. Here's hoping for a repeat in the near future - or a recording - or both!
After the concert - that is to say, after the Eduard Franck Quintet - there was a reception, given in honor of long-time Ciompi friend and patron Gabrielle Falk, whose 90th birthday had been serenaded with these wonderful performances of such exceptional music. Happy birthday to her!