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An institution in North Carolina chamber music, the Ciompi Quartet presented an evening of widely varied works, featuring the in-person premiere of "Soleil Noir," a commission by John Supko. This ensemble of Duke University faculty invited colleague Ieva Jokubaviciute for the second half of the program, which ended with an impressive rendition of Mieczysław Weinberg's Piano Quintet Op. 18, displaying expert technique and showmanship. Established in 1965, Ciompi is still maintaining a reputation of excellence while exploring the boundaries of contemporary classical music. If this sounds familiar, it is because we have covered this combination of talent before: see Barry Salwen's April 2021 review of "Soleil Noir"'s premiere.
William Grant Still's Lyric Quartette: Musical Portraits of Three Friends was a nice primer; by no means easy, this was one of the more approachable works of the evening. Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku led on violins with rich, dark timbre, while Jonathan Bagg's viola and Caroline Stinson's cello filled out the sound with undulating resonance – especially in the second movement, "The Quiet One." This piece is not necessarily quiet in volume, but its sinuous swells and falls perfectly complemented the Incan-inspired melody's introspection through slow, suspended melodies. This was in contrast to its surrounding movements, the opening "The Sentimental One," an overly emotional yet generally cheerful tune, and the incredibly jaunty closing "The Jovial One." The latter reminded me of Holst's "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity," boasting expressive tempo shifts, free and cheerful melody lines (which were, admittedly, a bit muddy), and interesting rhythmic complexity.
Supko's composition closed the first act, a Surrealist homage to Luis Buñuel, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Man Ray and Robert Desnos, and countless others, as Supko's extensive program notes muse. The idea of this work boils down to "a music of seductive wrongness" that paints a picture of "the inexorable approach of something slow and total." From the beginning, the work is what I call "crunchy," full of tense, purposeful dissonance. Troubled rhythmic statements repeated over Stinson's ringing lines, building in suspenseful rise with cinematic drama. There was the occasional moment of imprecise attacks or releases, but overall the performers neatly navigated this complex landscape. Pritchard's violin rose impossibly, even uncomfortably high, yet still maintained energy and constant conviction. Joined by Ku towards the end, the violins passed these jarring motives back and forth in squealing death throes (well-performed but not what I would call enjoyable), as the underpinning rhythmic statements approached the culmination of the piece, signaling Supko's "new continuity" born "out of the impossibility of continuing." Overall, "Soleil Noir" is quite an experience, and Duke is lucky to have both the performers and composer as faculty.
Three songs by John Dowland followed intermission, arranged by yet another Duke professor (and Stinson's husband), Andrew Waggoner, who credits his time spent with Steve Stucky exploring music by Dowland, Britten, and others as inspirations in his treatments of the songs. Now Jokubaviciute joined the ensemble to form a piano quintet, and once the string players declined to tune to her proffered A minor chords, they set to work. I will begrudgingly admit that, as a tuning-obsessed flutist, I expected consequences from declining to tune to the stage piano before they began, but I was pleasantly surprised by the very few intonation issues that arose. All that to say, these musicians consistently did a great job of adjusting to each other in the moment.
"The Lowest Trees Have Tops" was a delicate piece replete with intricately dovetailing lines. Although the piano's resonance diluted the light Renaissance context of the sound, the ensemble managed a lovely, contemporary interpretation of Dowland's – as Waggoner describes it – "harmonic freshness." "Tell Me True Love" and "Come Heavy Sleep" were similarly airy and colorful, with the strings appropriately utilizing lighter vibrato and bow strokes. The piano and first violin had a lovely, earnest melodic feature accompanied by all-pizzicato strings in the third movement that was especially charming.
The five-movement behemoth of Weinberg's Piano Quintet Op. 18 closed the program, but it was definitely the highlight. The opening Moderato con moto began with rhythmic ambiguity that felt a little off, but the ensemble immediately injected a huge amount of emotional intensity into growing turmoil and energy. Jokubaviciute began to utilize the power of her instrument, giving a firmer touch that threatened to drown out the strings, but ultimately lent effective percussive elements to the movement. The second movement revisited a surrealist-absurdist feeling, switching between a quiet, folk melody alien in its movement; a frenetic, improvisatory piano feature; and staggered, scurrying col legno battuto string lines (this is when the player uses the wood side of the bow to hit or tap the strings, rather than the typical drawing across of the hair). Bagg's viola delivered the melody with a thin sound that effectively conveyed the overall feeling of turmoil present throughout Weinberg's composition. While the work doesn't explicitly tell a story, it is compelling in a way that paints a complex narrative from start to finish and is very clearly derived from, as described in the program notes, "the tragic intensity of the time [in the midst of WWII]."
The third, Presto, movement began with an inconceivably tiny, stifled sound, layered underneath a pointillistic piano motive, but grew into an aggressive, unhinged waltz that delivered a huge and powerful sound of brilliant dissonance. The explosive ending, complete with a powerful glissando by Jokubaviciute, was one of the most impressive moments of the evening. The fourth movement was, again, emotionally intense, with Bagg and Stinson delivering a beautifully quiet duet, contrasted by brief moments of ethereal, sparkling hope by Jokubaviciute. Her expansive solos were full of technically brilliant motion contrasted by impactful pauses. Unfortunately, the occasional extended group unison sections were slightly disappointing, as they revealed subtle inconsistencies in intonation again. Thankfully, the final movement was incredibly strong, beginning with a buzzy agitation, and moving through an insistent jig tune that repeatedly arose and disintegrated. Stinson's deft overtone harmonics brought about an abrupt, utterly chilling ending into complete silence that is unique to close such a tour-de-force of a work, but was absolutely enthralling. This work was not only a testament to Ciompi's and Jokubaviciute's endurance and technical preparation, but also their depth of programming, and a delightful commitment to pairing new and old works throughout a vast classical repertoire.