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Within the framework of a weekend of contemporary music at Duke, the Ciompi Quartet presented three 20th century works that touch on three diverse compositional trends of the period . The program opened with Four Marys, a 1991 string quartet by Julia Wolfe, a New York composer. Wolfe is one of the founding members of the Bang on a Can ensemble who has been visiting Duke University this weekend for a concert and master classes. Started in 1987 as a one-day event on New York's Lower East Side, Bang on a Can has grown into an organization for the promotion and performance of new music with a national and international reputation.
Although the composer alleges to have been influenced by the "crying" tone of the Appalachian Mountains 3-string dulcimer, we have never heard that instrument set up such a cacophony of relentless wailing as was produced by the poor quartet members who - alas - were only following orders. It was without doubt one of our most unpleasant musical experiences, blending the worst of minimalism with the worst of atonality. The title, "Four Marys" comes from a Scottish folk tune, although we could find no relation between the music and the sound of the dulcimer or of any folk song at all. Despite its overall unpleasantness, the work did have a recognizable structure in the form of a middle section in which fragments of melody finally took over - unfortunately only for a short time - from the wailing. Perhaps, the point of the piece was to elicit in the listener the feeling of relief occasioned by the contrasting sonority. And, of course, it does raise the issue of the aesthetics of ugliness. The Ciompi battled valiantly with the notes; the composer, who was present, seemed to be pleased. We were not.
James Sellars, another composer who has written extensively for Bang on a Can, presently divides his time between New York and Hartford, where he is on the composition-theory faculty at The Hartt School. His 1996 string quintet, with a double bass, reflects the return to a more diatonic - although not necessarily tonal in the formal sense of the term - approach to music seen in the 1990s, with occasional looks back at the atonality of mid-century. The Ciompi, with bassist Robert Black - also a member of Bang on the Can - performed this work with great energy and expressiveness, especially in the charming pizzicato second movement.
The final work on the program, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite for string quartet, is fast approaching the venerable age of 80, still remaining fresh and intriguing. Its lasting popularity has been aided by the piecemeal disclosure of the details of the love affair (probably unconsummated) that was its inspiration, and which explains the gut-wrenching emotions the composer managed to express within a purely serial composition. This disclosure culminated in the 1970s when composer George Perle discovered the private manuscript of Berg's secret lover. It contained detailed references to the relationship ( the pitches A-B-flat for Alban Berg and B-F for Hanna Fuchs - B-flat is designed B and B natural is designed H in German - appear frequently in the score) and, in the last movement, a vocal line for soprano, a setting of a German translation of Baudelaire's De profundis clamavi (From the depths I cried out). For this performance, soprano Susan Dunn joined the Ciompi.
The Lyric Suite is an extremely difficult work technically, and the performance was mostly precise and expressive. Only in the fifth movement did the technical difficulties slow down the players from the prescribed presto to a more comfortable allegro. Dunn had difficulties in places being heard above the strings, and the lack of a printed text and translation in the program was a disappointment.
In spite of our negative reaction to Wolfe's piece, we felt that the program provided a perspective on 20th century music that one seldom hears. In the large majority of concerts a single "difficult" contemporary piece is sandwiched between two more easily digestible classics, giving no opportunity for a comparison of the vast variety of modern styles. This concert gave a historical perspective that is greatly needed in order for listeners to consolidate and evaluate the music of the century in which they have spent most of their lives.