What better to way to spend a sultry summer afternoon than to listen to a program of beautiful music at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art? On the afternoon of July 16, the top-flight Ciompi Quartet and guest artists Laura Gilbert, flute, and Kimberly Van Pelt and Tracy Golaszewski, horns, performed repertoire not often heard – and for an appreciative audience. In the small performance space, I could picture myself a guest at the elegant salon of Countess Lodron in Salzburg, where Mozart's Divertimento in B-Flat, K.287, for Strings and Horns (1777), was premiered. Amy Beach's Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet (1916) and two smaller but nonetheless interesting works – Debussy's "Syrinx" (1913) and James Bolle's Music for Flute, Strings, and Woodblocks (2005) – filled the hall with a garden of color and light.
Noted for her choral music and art songs, Amy Beach's work list includes an impressive body of compositions for the symphonic orchestra plus chamber works and an opera. During a time when serious composers were still traveling to Europe to learn their craft, Beach studied Berlioz's treatise on her own and spent summers at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Coupled with her interest in Chopin's piano works and colorful orchestrations of Debussy, Beach developed a musical language that is uniquely her own.
With lush sonorities, flute melodic lines that weave in and out of the foreground, and well constructed string passages, the Theme and Variations clearly demonstrates her mastery of orchestration and forward sense of musicality. Beach flirts with tonal ambiguities (avoiding the tonic in the violin lines, for example), though the minor mode of the theme is easily identifiable. The piece opens with a delicate statement by the strings, subsequently joined by the flute. The contrast between variations was subtle and never trite, a feat that makes Beach's work seem like a walk through a well-designed gallery. Gilbert played with a brilliant, clear, singing tone; Fred Raimi's cantabile cello playing, never overbearing, was supportive, and together the ensemble of five was exceptional.
Gilbert addressed the audience with the humorous story behind Debussy's little gem "Syrinx," written to fulfill a party bet. With sensitive phrasing and clarity at all registers, she created a lovely flute study in miniature. In contrast, Bolle's "post-modern" Music for Flute, Strings and Woodblocks was like overhearing a schoolyard of clamorous children. With short rhythmic bouts of sometimes-parallel conversation, and with atonality, it challenges the listener to a different sort of wit. Inserting optional interludes ("Gertrude's Dream Waltz" by Beethoven and "When This Cruel War is Over" by Henry Tucker) seemingly intended to be quaint, the performers shared a convincing reading. I congratulate them, as always, for their openness to new music.
The highlight of the afternoon was Mozart's six-movement Divertimento in B-Flat for strings and two horns. It was written during an emotionally difficult year (1777) when Mozart had been unable to find a suitable post and when, while he was visiting Paris, his mother had died. Whether or not the fiendishly difficult first violin part was written for himself (Mozart was an accomplished violinist) is speculative. Mozart, who incorporated regional styles and compositional techniques, was very likely influenced by the Paris orchestra. According to music scholar Stanley Sadie, writing in Music Guide: An Introduction, the orchestra "prided itself on its violins' vigorous and precise attack." Not surprisingly, Mozart completed the "Paris" Symphony during the following year. At fifty-one minutes of music, this Divertimento is not a lightweight party piece. One hears Haydn's influence in the opening movement; the long, graceful melodic lines of the Adagio, however, are truly evidence of the maturing composer.
Although it was composed for strings and horns, the Ciompi Quartet featured the piece as a violin concerto. This was effective, but the artistic choice did have a problem. The horns lines were noticeably out of balance, a challenge exacerbated by the acoustics of the auditorium. Eric Pritchard's virtuosic performance rose above the volume of the less interesting horn parts, and the other members of the quartet supported him with beautifully executed articulation. Pritchard played the Adagio with a luscious tone, and his own cadenzas were so well written they could have been penned by Mozart. The high E-flats, perfectly in tune, soared heavenward – as intended!