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The Ciompi Quartet, Duke University's resident string quartet, entered their 53rd season with a concert full of contrasts. In just a short time, the quartet used three works as a vehicle to showcase fiery acrobatics and emotional vibrato (plus everything in between), all with total communication among the musicians. This is notable when you consider that this is the quartet's inaugural performance introducing cellist and member Caroline Stinson. Fred Raimi, the Ciompi's featured cellist for the past several decades, retired this past spring. Although Raimi's presence is surely missed both onstage and in the Duke Department of Music, Stinson has been warmly welcomed by concertgoers, faculty, and Duke students – and deservingly so. In fact, someone seeing the Ciompi Quartet for the first time might not have even known that this was the first time the four musicians were performing publicly together.
Stinson's written biography speaks well to her accolades and years of experience as a cellist and chamber musician, but her extraordinarily high level of musical sensitivity is something that can only be witnessed in performance. As is tradition, the program began with a Haydn quartet: the String Quartet in G (Op. 76, No. 1). As the first movement begins, the opening motive is rapidly exchanged among the four instruments, resulting in an effervescent conversation. Despite having a new instrument at the forefront for each new phrase, the Ciompi Quartet's balance was well-tuned. The light polyphony of the first movement is wholly different from the second movement's texture. Switching gears in an instant, violinist Eric Pritchard, with breath and expression, led the quartet through languid, heavily rubato phrases. Pritchard, Hsiao-Mei Ku, Jonathan Bagg, and Stinson used every millimeter of each bow for the homophonic chords that formed the melody. Communication was again at the forefront for the cadential endings of both the third and fourth movements – airy and pause-filled in the third, and sassy in the fourth.
The beginning of Andrew Waggoner's Legacy, a total departure from Haydn and Beethoven, turns four instruments into a kind of mechanical being, imitating something sputtering and whirring to life. Through a subtle upward motif and impeccably matched articulation, "Love-Chorus" leads to the heart of the work. There is no less urgency; this music is more organic in nature, with a lack of constant meter that results in a sense of weightlessness. It's also worth mentioning that Waggoner is not only Duke's newest composition professor, but the husband of Stinson. In fact, the commissioning of Legacy is what led to the two meeting (a fact that was shared onstage by Stinson before the performance).
Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127 (in E-flat) has most of the musical textures that you could possibly think of: a throaty chord progression for the opening, a cantabile melody between violin and cello, a waltz secured by cello pizzicato, unpredictably terraced dynamics, and everything in between. Sometimes the changes occurred so suddenly that it could have taken the listening audience a moment to catch up, while the musicians remained, of course, completely in control. With all of these musical ideas packed into one concert, the Ciompi Quartet is definitely off to a great start for their latest season.