Just as the holidays abound with thematically focused concerts, spring programs overflow with variety. Like the multi-hued flowers that will soon bloom here in the Triad, colorful and idiosyncratic compositions sit unapologetically astride one another in springtime shows.
That was certainly the case with the Ciompi Quartet's Friday night concert at Christ United Methodist in Greensboro. With everything from a bread-and-butter Schubert quartet to a contemporary masterpiece by Zhou Long, Ciompi wove together an evening full of charming differences.
Music for a Great Space, Greensboro's premier chamber series, is nearing the end of its 25th season. To celebrate, they've brought back the all stars. Each of the performers on this season's series has performed at MGS, to great acclaim.
Ciompi hails from just next door at Duke University, but these local heroes are anything but provincial. Their musicality and performance credentials are world-class. They celebrate an anniversary of their own this year with 50 seasons on the books.
This program began with the beloved "Rosamunde" quartet in A minor by Franz Schubert. This dense, 30-minute work is held tightly together by motives that recur across movements. The players were focused and careful, favoring elegance over power. Their delicacy was enchanting, but also somewhat tiresome by the end of the piece. I would have appreciated more fire and rhythmic drive during some passages. Closing out the first half was an early work by Anton Webern, one of the towering figures of 20th century music. Webern's mature work is characterized by its extreme compression and serial manipulation of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. The "Langsamer Satz" from 1905 is worlds away from his later music. Here the 21-year-old Webern expresses his love for his future wife, and the musical language is still quite Romantic. Ciompi matched the work's overflowing lyricism with lush vibrato and supple dynamics.
The second half began with the evening's gem – Poems From Tang by Zhou Long. This 4-movement masterpiece from 1995 is widely performed, and exists in a version for string quartet and full orchestra.
Long uses colorful extended techniques to illustrate the poems by Wang Wei, Liu Zongyuan, Li Bai, and Du Fu. The writing is exquisite: harmonics, tremolo, pizzicato, and glissando fill the sonic surface but are carefully-chosen in both symbolism and structural significance.
Ciompi could not have performed any better. Their balance between delicacy and energy was positively gymnastic, and their tone and dynamics were breathtakingly beautiful – a magnificent piece, and an astonishing performance.
Ciompi closed out their program with a clever and charming early work by George Gershwin, the "Lullaby" from 1919. Whereas the youthful "Langsamer Satz" betrays no hints of Webern's mature personality, the "Lullaby" is Gershwin through and through. Even at this early age, this quintessential American composer exhibited his famous wit. "Lullaby" made for a fine, tension-relieving end to an evening of intense and colorful works. Congratulations to Music for a Great Space, and bravi to the Ciompi Quartet!