Programming is an art in itself. Some artists/ensembles present haughty fronts, claiming not to care what others think or who or how many people attend their concerts. Fortunately, they are a distinct minority; after spending sometimes hundreds of hours perfecting a program, most musicians want a large audience to share their vision and bask in their talent and virtuosity. Balancing old favorites with "modern" repertoire, new commissions, and works that, even ahead of time, are likely to offend (or put off) many people requires vision, courage, and just plain instinct. No group is better at this than the Ciompi Quartet, resident string quartet at Duke University.
Realizing that their fans may need a head start for some of the scores they choose, the Ciompi Quartet offers "previews" on Thursdays preceding their Saturday evening subscription concerts. Selecting what is usually considered the most "difficult" work on the program, they play and talk about the music in an informal presentation, preceded by light snacks and wine. For years, these took place at the old art museum on Duke's east campus, but the venue is now the lovely new building at the entrance to the Sarah B. Duke Gardens. They call these events "First Course" concerts, and the one on February 17 featured an advance reading of the eleventh of the fifteen string quartets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich. Cellist Fred Raimi was the emcee and music professor for this one (the quartet members and guests, including composers when they are available, take turns at the head of the class), and it was an illuminating and entertaining late afternoon seminar. These are unique experiences to hear musicians who have immersed themselves in given works explain their ideas and the concepts behind the compositions and then hear them play. For a very nominal fee it is a great way to spend an hour or so and to learn first-hand about the creative process.
Now, on to the February 19 "main course...." Despite the limited seating, the Nelson Music Room has ambience and acoustic richness that make it nearly perfect for string quartets, and the concert – sold-out – featured some of the finest playing you will hear anywhere in a program representing many styles and emotions. It almost seems superfluous to list the names, but the Ciompi Quartet's members are Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Fred Raimi, cello. They began with the first of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn. It is a work of exceptional charm, vigor, and optimism, one that epitomizes "classic" classical-period composition. It is rich in beautiful melodies and strict formal structure but with a freshness and immediacy that makes it seem as new as the day it was written. Although the first violin still plays a slightly more prominent role than is the case in the master's later scores, gone is the style of quartet writing where the three other musicians serve to prop up the virtuosity of the leader. The final movement, marked Allegro Vivace, is especially brilliant, with miraculous contrapuntal complexity that suggests the finale of the "Jupiter" Symphony. There are also passages that prefigure much of the writing in The Magic Flute. The quartet served as a phenomenal demonstration of casual virtuosity, and it had the entire audience floating along in its brilliant joy.
Looking at the program, the listing of Shostakovich's 11th Quartet might have elicited expectations that are at variance with its reality. Written in 1966 in seven movements, one would expect a very long, dense, forbidding work steeped in the starkness of the Russian winters and psyche. Nothing could be further from the truth. The quartet is played without pauses between the movements, and the whole venture takes only about fifteen minutes. Each section is filled with distinct musical ideas, but Shostakovich doesn't dwell very long on any of them. They are stated, delivered, and gone. For most people in the audience this was a first-time hearing, and it grabbed hold of us immediately. One reason for this is that it projects a quality more composers of today should emulate – the audience is not the enemy, and there is nothing wrong with a work being immediately accessible without losing its integrity. The Ciompi Quartet played it with consummate technical skill and handled the roller-coaster ride of emotional extremes with sensitivity rivaling any quartet on the market today.
Where Shostakovich used a great variety of different musical ideas and seemed to discard them almost as soon as they were heard, we went to the other extreme in Schubert's Quartet in G, written in 1826 – one of several of his works that can be described as "of heavenly length" or "nearly interminable." It is a certified masterpiece, yet one can critique it from the standpoint that he just didn't know when enough was enough. I tend to side with this opinion. It is filled with typical Schubertian melodies and brilliant, intense string writing, but it sits right on the border of having just too many repeated ideas and phrases. Despite these audacious comments, I wasn't for one moment bored by the performance, and that is a testament to the depth of feeling conveyed by these players and their interpretation. That it was a heavenly performance is not up for debate.