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As a part of its Wednesday evening concert series organized by the residents of Carol Woods Retirement Community, this charming organization hosted Ciompi Quartet’s Hsiao-Mei Ku, violinist. Before joining Ciompi and the Duke University faculty, Ku was the associate concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony. Collaborating in this performance was pianist Larry Todd, also a Duke faculty member and no less impressive. Todd is a general editor for Oxford University Press with a doctorate from Yale University. Longtime performers at Carol Woods, they returned with a program that traveled back and forth through time – Mozart, Ravel, Schubert, and China's eminent Bright Sheng. Todd discussed the details and context of each piece, guiding the audience through the ages.
Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G, K.301, was first, immediately establishing a robust, expressive conversation. Ku's expressive vibrato was charming, especially during the lilting, playful second movement. Todd made reference to the "Mannheim crescendo," an orchestral crescendo technique that Mozart's sonata imitated.
Ku spoke next, introducing Sheng's The Stream Flows, a piece in two movements that is meant to encapsulate Chinese folk and courting songs in the solo violin. Thanks to Ku's Chinese traditional music background, Sheng's work sounded as if it were played on the erhu, known as the Chinese "fiddle." Her full, singing tone, excellent use of double stops (bowing multiple strings at once), ghostly overtones, and rhythmic plucked notes added to the ever-changing landscape of the second movement.
Maurice Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 from 1927 followed, first with a gorgeous exploration of colors that sat somewhere between moody and playful. The performance was engaging, then moved into the jazzy second movement. It was accessible, yet refined – the contemporary-classical musician’s take on jazz. The third movement combined athletic, running parts that brought the first two parts together. The performance was polished, yet passionate: Ku and Todd worked incredibly well together and were well-rehearsed, yet never sterile.
Unfortunately, the last piece might have been one too many. The energy seemed to flag from the second movement on, and finally regrouped at the final coda, but it was a struggle. Franz Schubert's Fantasy in C minor was glorious and Todd carried the duo through it, but the difficult strains in the violin part would have been fresher and more in control if the rest of the program had been lighter. During the variations on Schubert's lied (German song), that is the focal point of the central movement, the balance finally settled with Ku staying out of the way and playing a little more conservatively to save her energy for the brilliant, joyous finale.
The duo will perform back at home on October 15 at Duke University which is also a free admission concert. These two are too talented to be missed, especially for free! They make a great team and their programming is incredibly engaging – not one note without purpose or delicate expression.