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For music lovers, one of the more delightful venues for those few concerts given during the summer doldrums is Kirby Horton Hall in the Doris Duke Center on the grounds of the gorgeous Sarah B. Duke Gardens. Add superb acoustics and audience intimacy to its exposed woodwork and delightful views of the gardens! This was the last of three concerts offered under the rubric "Ciompi Quartet Presents" which featured members of the Ciompi Quartet and guest artists. Ciompi cellist Fred Raimi was joined by soprano Jeanne Fischer (from UNC Chapel Hill), violinist Jacqui Carrasco (from Wake Forest University), and Duke University's own Jane Hawkins, pianist and Raimi's wife. A masterful song cycle from the then-ill Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) was paired with one by the prolific American composer Lori Laitman (b.1955) as centerpieces. These were leavened with a duo for cello and piano and a fascinating solo for violin.
The concert opened with a fine performance of Cello Sonata in B-flat, RV.47, by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). It is in the standard baroque slow-fast-slow-fast format. All the exposed wood in the hall contributed to the wonderfully rich, warm sound of Raimi's cello. His intonation was superb, as was his control of dynamics and phrasing. I relished the subtle endings of two largos. Hawkins' piano remained with its lid fully raised throughout the concert. Her restrained, deftly scaled dynamics were models, and the balance as she played the surprising imaginative keyboard part was delightful.
Composer Laitman graduated magna cum laude from Yale University and has her Masters of Music from the Yale School of Music. The Journal of Singing has praised "her exceptional gifts for embracing a poetic text and giving it a new and deeper life through music." In her extensive catalog are multiple operas and choral works and more than 250 songs using both classical and contemporary poets. The Love Songs of Marichiko is a cycle of six songs for soprano and cello set to poems by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82). The songs are: 1. "I Sit at my desk," 2. "If I Thought," 3. "Oh the Anguish," 4. "You Ask Me," 5. "Autumn," and 6. "Just Us." Some Asian references in the texts, such as shoji in the third song, reflect Rexroth's role as a translator.
This was the kind of performance that whetted the appetite for more: for more performances of this song cycle and the opportunity to explore some of Laitman's other works. How imaginative to pair the human voice with its closest string equivalent, the cello! The songs gave soprano Fischer plenty of scope for both dynamic range and subtle application of dynamics and tone. Her voice was evenly supported across the wide tessitura of the songs. Her diction was excellent. All the virtues of Raimi's Vivaldi performance were present in spades in his cello accompaniment.
I did a double take as I thought I misread the next work, Selections from Partita, for unaccompanied violin (2006), by Rachel Matthews (b.1966), as there is a well-regarded recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas by baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews. (The father of these sisters is pianist Clifton Matthews, long affiliated with the UNCSA.) Visiting violinist Jacqui Carrasco's prefatory remarks clarified all. Rachel is a pianist who ran a too-short-lived Foothills Chamber Music Festival in Winston-Salem; she has taken successfully to composing. Rachel and Ingrid are twin sisters, and Rachel composed a six-movement Partita for Ingrid (for modern violin) to honor their shared 40th birthday. Carrasco played I. Fantasia, II. Minuet, V. Saraband, and VI. Gigue. Carrasco's intonation was superb, as was her tone. The work is tonal but Carrasco made the most of Matthew's whimsical approach to rhythm and unexpected silences. This is a welcome addition to the repertoire and I have ordered Ingrid Matthews' recording, Centaur CRC 3171 Dreams: New Chamber Music by Rachel Matthews.
Shostakovich composed Seven Romances by Alexander Blok, Op. 127 (described as "A Vocal and Instrumental Suite for Soprano, Violin, Cello, and Piano), while he was hospitalized for a heart attack in 1967. During the composer's enforced rest after his close call with Death, he read widely, including the works of Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921), who was closely influenced by Russian mystic Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). Shostakovich chose seven of Blok's poems with strong undercurrents of mysticism which is emphasized in the music. The cycle was premiered October 23, 1967, with soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and with composer/pianist Moisei Vainberg (1919-96) substituting on short notice for Shostakovich. This world premiere performance is widely available.
The performance of Op.. 127 was dedicated to the memory of Horst Meyer, whose recent passing is a great loss to the Duke Arts community as well as to the physics department.
Over the course of the poems, various elements of the accompanying piano trio are added until all three join for the last song, "Music." The cello supports the first song, "Ophelia," which laments separation from the beloved. "Gamayun, the Prophet Bird" foretells past, present, and future, accompanied by piano. "We Were Together" is a duet between reason (soprano) and soul (violin). The largo-like fourth song, "The City Sleeps," supports the singer with cello and piano. In the fifth song, "Storm," violin and piano help conjure up a raging storm. In contrast, violin and piano weave a largo mood in the sixth song, "Secret Signs," which leads without pause to the seventh song, "Music."
These great, dark songs were given magnificent performances as soprano Fischer met every challenge of Shostakovich's cycle. Her diction was excellent; I followed her singing in a transliterated Russian text easily. (The concert program had only the English translations.) She had plenty of vocal heft to hold her own against the loud, stormy instrumental parts in "Gamayun," and "Storm." The instrumental contributions of Carrasco, Raimi, and Hawkins were equally and collectively superb.