When the members of the Ciompi Quartet walked onstage wearing tails at Baldwin Auditorium, I felt the glow of witnessing performance history. This is the 50th anniversary season for the resident music ensemble of Duke University. As a part of the Duke Performances series, this first concert included guest musicians, vocalist Nnenna Freelon, cellist Akua Dixon, and bassist John Brown. Featuring works by Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dixon, the audience heard some of the finest works composed for string quartet.
There are certain traditions the Ciompi holds dear. For example, the first concert of the season honors Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). This year's featured work was String Quartet in G, Op. 77, No. 1 – a quintessential example for the medium. In his program notes, Ciompi violist Jonathan Bagg wrote that "...in the key of G Major, an apollonian sunshine bathes the work." (After 9 days of rain and countless stories of political storm, we needed this badly!) The Ciompi performed the work with the grace and elegance it deserved – a tip of the hat for the father of the string quartet.
If Haydn is considered "father," then his student, Beethoven is the heir to a medium that composers consider top-drawer music. With no fewer than seventeen on his list, Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74 is affectionately referred to as "Harp," and the last of Beethoven's middle quartets. Bernard Jacobson wrote "...it is as gracious and friendly a quartet as Beethoven had ever written..." (notes from EMI recording, 1979).
The Ciompi's memorable performance reflected all the joy and exuberance Beethoven's music could summon. Bagg smiled and the players began with an elegant sweep like the sound of a warm, gentle breeze. By the end of the first movement, the music builds. The audience, cued by the performers' flying bows (I'm referring to the sticks) applauded. And why not? This concert was not just for classical music lovers, but also for the rest of us, including jazz aficionados, who are accustomed to rewarding good playing. This simple gesture of appreciation reminded me to relax and enjoy violinist Eric Pritchard's lovely playing during the slow movement and to sit up attentively to the galloping rhythm of the Presto. From now on I will listen to pizzicato with new ears – perhaps a small connection between European string playing and jazz bass performance.
The second half of the program featured works arranged (and composed) by Dixon. The Ciompi was joined by Dixon and guest performers, Freelon and Brown. The elegantly dressed Freelon introduced each of the commissioned pieces, beginning with "Juba" from In the Bottoms Suite by R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) arranged for string quartet. A piece I recall from piano recitals, I could not hold back a great smile.
Each of the five selections held special meaning for Freelon. "Moon River" was a favorite song of Freelon's mother and "Black is the Color" a song she remembered from summer camp. Bagg pointed out that the songs complemented the first half of the program. Dixon's arrangement of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" was one of my favorites, but each song was beautifully crafted, including the aria "Simple Charm" from her newly composed opera. Freelon also sang Dixon's version of Smokey Robinson/Stevie Wonder's "Tears of a Clown" and included audience participation on "This Little Light of Mine."
Freelon's performance was stunning. Her voice was warm and clear; her gestures were like that of a dancer's honed to lead an ensemble. Enhanced by the jazz artists Brown and Dixon, the ensemble responded as if they had played many concerts together. The audience asked for an encore, but sadly, the wish was not granted. If you missed the performance, you can hear some of Dixon's music from her album here.
The Ciompi Quartet members have grown and maintained a following of loyal friends. This concert celebrated not just a cherished music institution in our hometown, but a group of musicians who perform music among friends, colleagues and neighbors. For more about the Ciompi Quartet's history, please read this.