In their third concert of the season, the Ciompi Quartet, resident string quartet and worldwide representatives of Duke University, presented a program at Baldwin Auditorium that seemed to be a meld of "old" and "new." Ciompi consists of expressive violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku, serene violist Jonathan Bagg, and hearty cellist Fred Raimi. Modern works inspired by classical idioms and forms were performed alongside music that helped to establish such idioms in the first place. Another theme present in the concert was a mixture between classical and traditional, or "folk" styles. To accomplish this, the quartet featured Jamie Laval, beautifully playing his Scottish fiddle in the world premiere of David Kirkland Garner's Skye and Glass. These juxtapositions made the concert not only aesthetically beautiful, but also intellectually satisfying.
Britten's Three Divertimenti reveal the composer's definite originality, especially in the way he approaches instrument timbre and methods of finding unique sounds from the four instruments. Each of the three movements is quite different, but all feature constantly changing textures, forming a tapestry of shifting, polyphonic phrases. To keep this level of complexity together in a quartet, let alone to make it musical and expressive, is extremely difficult. However, with the Ciompi Quartet, the music made "sense" and seemed effortless.
It is difficult to pick a highlight of the concert between Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte and Garner's Skye and Glass. The former begins with a subtle, unassuming chord progression, but by the end, leaves the listener with a sense of awe. The chords that structure this piece are quite beautiful, but moments of unpredictability occur, where tonality withers and disintegrates suddenly. Without a doubt, Ciompi executed these moments in perfect synchrony, especially in striking sections where phrases are played so lightly on the bow that they are almost nonexistent. Raimi's cello solo at the end was brilliant and unique, summing up all four musicians' musical and cadential sensitivity.
Skye and Glass contained similar qualities; sudden bursts of energy like gusts of wind made even more sense when considered within Garner's conceptual framework, the theme of realization. Laval's lyric and intricate melodies were soulful at times too, rising above the rolling landscape that the quartet created. At times, this juxtaposition was strange, with Laval playing ornamented and lilting Scottish tunes over the chromatic and tonal shifting of the quartet. The fluid balance between these two musical forces was quite fascinating and memorable to experience.
Dvořák's String Quartet No.10 in E-flat was somewhat of an odd choice for a program ender, due to its more "conventional" tonality, at least when considering the excitement and uniqueness of the preceding music. However, that does in no way diminish the Ciompi Quartet's satisfying and nuanced performance.