Chamber Music Review



Duke Summer Series Offers Wide-Spectrum Chamber Program

June 18, 2008 - Durham, NC:


Wednesday evening's concert in the Doris Duke Center's Kirby Horton Hall, located at the main entrance to Duke Gardens, brought the classical portion of the Summer Music series at Duke University to a close, but offerings continue, al fresco, on eight Sunday evenings through August 3; click here for details.

This last classical program (till fall...) featured the Ciompi Quartet (violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi) and guest artist Max Raimi, distinguished composer, violist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and brother of the CQ's cellist. That the concert was sold out speaks to the enduring popularity of the performers — all of them, for Max Raimi has been heard here before — and the now year-round appeal of chamber music in this region. It's a fact, too, that, aside from the ADF, there's not a whole lot going on in the Bull City in June.

One might be tempted to call the program a fairly typical "long-hair" mix of selections from the classical, romantic, and modern eras, inasmuch as the evening began with Mozart, included Dvorák's great E-Flat String Quintet (sometimes called "The American," a nickname also applied to the 12th String Quartet), and encompassed a knock-out contemporary work that's only eight years old, but in fact the lineup was a good deal more complex than that.

The Mozart piece, which served to get things underway, was a recent arrangement for string trio of the master's well-known set of keyboard variations we call "Twinkle-twinkle Little Star." (The French tune, known to Mozart as "Ah vous dirai-je, maman," lives in the catalog as K.265.) The players were Pritchard and the two Raimis, and the transcription was by the violist. It was an unending delight, skillfully wrought and punctuated (if that's the operative term) by Brother Max with more than the usual "fair share" of last words, as it were, for Brother Fred. Some members of the audience seemed to respond with typical classical concert seriousness, but the faces of others were wreathed in smiles!

Next up was an important encore performance here of Max Raimi's own String Quintet (2000), last heard locally soon after the ink had dried. Then as now, the composer explained its unusual movement titles: "Street Mantras: Arrogant" is based on a self-boosting litany, "We don't stop for nobody," mingled with a baseball theme; "Abraham's March" combined, with Ivesian wizardry, two of the favorite tunes ("On the Road to Mandalay" and the University of Michigan fight song) of the brothers' father, whose passing the movement in effect memorializes; and "Big Finish" which, believe it or not, describes the finale. The performance was exceptional in several respects, one of which is that it was a repeat here; it's widely known that premieres are commonplace but encores of new works are often staggeringly difficult to achieve. The response from the capacity crowd (with, as was the case during the previous week's concert, overflow seating outside, on the terrace) was warm and enthusiastic.

The evening's last work was that aforementioned Op. 97 "Viola Quintet" (called this because it is scored for a standard string quartet plus a second viola) by Dvorák. (The composer's other big string quintet is for string quartet plus a double bass.) The performance was totally congenial and engaging, and the work is drenched with delights, including a big solo for viola (played by Bagg) and another for violin (Pritchard). In the theme-and-variations movement — a form that was a constant during this concert — there are heart-warming echoes of the Ninth ("New World") Symphony, completed just a month before this work was begun. And this quintet's finale is, as in Max Raimi's own score, truly a "Big Finish" that was given a tremendously exciting reading.

Chamber music fans must now scrounge locally till the 2008-9 Sights and Sounds series kicks off on July 13 at the Museum of Art — or travel to some of our summer festivals for small-ensemble fixes.