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Tuesday night, Eric Pritchard (first violinist of the Ciompi Quartet of Duke University since 1995) provided some background information about the interesting and engaging program that took place in Kirby Horton Hall at Duke Gardens. The large and attentive audience (indeed, more chairs had to be set up to accommodate the crowd) was treated to a concert that included two world premieres with both composers present, one of whom was one of the performers.
Pritchard, who was joined by four other crack musicians – Anton Miller (violin), Heather Bentley (viola), Elizabeth Anderson (cello), and Brandt Fredriksen (piano) – performed as part of the ongoing series Ciompi Presents (the next concert takes place in the same locale on Thursday, August 17 at 7:00PM). Up first was Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt (Estonia, b. 1935).
Pärt's music is known for its minimalist sound, especially for tintinnabulum: "characterized by two types of voices," one that iterates triads, and "the second of which moves . . . in mostly stepwise motion." That certainly describes this composition, written in 1978. Fredriksen's patient and beautifully shaped three-note chords with occasional low octaves and ringing treble notes provided Pritchard with the perfect canvas over which to gently intone the opening three-to-five note "melodies" that became longer and longer. The entire eight-minute work provided a restful and mesmerizing opening.
For Nellie by Heather Bentley (US, b. 1964) was written for piano quintet specifically for this performance; the work was inspired by Ellen (Nellie) Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), the visionary landscape architect of the Duke Gardens. The work is in four movements, each representing the "midpoints between the Solstices and Equinoxes" of the four seasons. According to the composer's notes, "the piece is partially through-composed, and partially improvised, with chance and choice elements in places."
The first movement, "November," is "still and dormant," with Fredriksen working inside the piano tapping on the frame and strumming the strings, while wisps of seemingly unrelated melodic fragments from the strings are heard. A glissando crescendo from the piano ends its participation in the rest of the movement. What follows is devoted to the strings with the viola being the outlier from the other three.
"February," "bursting with incipient life," opens with a perky piano part. Eventually a chorale-like texture is presented by the strings, accompanied by the piano playing sounds that resembled birds chirping, at least to this listener.
"May," with "ferocious fecundity," featured a frantically insistent cello, playing a single note, with viola harmonics and glissandi. All come together in grandeur with some repetitive patterns, providing a robust conclusion.
"August" puts a lovely cello line front and center (gorgeously played by Anderson) with the other strings providing "gleaming backgrounds." The piano often doubled the cello within a melodic fragment or a note from a chord, which offered a nice touch. The gentle conclusion provides a perfect ending.
The performance was extraordinary. Close communication between the five musicians, evident commitment and passion, and close attention to changes in character and dynamics helped make for a strong and convincing presentation of this sometimes thorny, sometimes dreamy composition.
After intermission came the 8-minute 1893 Passacaglia by Johan Halvorsen (Norway, 1864-1935) "after Handel's Keyboard Suite in G minor." This arrangement for violin (Miller) and cello is a tour-de-force for both. The virtuosity and devotion required for a successful execution of the work was apparent. Miller and Anderson's playing was amazing; the technical demands were tossed off like water off a duck's back.
Cubic Deviations by Bill Robinson (US, b. 1955), inspired by Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, closed out the evening. Robinson, returning to composition after a dry period, chose "the ensemble that is easiest for me to write for, piano quintet, and the easiest format, a variation on an existing piece." The choice of the Brahms' Variations "means that this work is variation on variations on variations, hence the title Cubic Deviations." The work is to be the basis for a future orchestral version.
Those familiar with the Brahms piece will likely recognize various harmonic progressions or rhythmic patterns from the original in this equally innovative composition "dressed in new clothes." The variations by turn were witty, novel, luxurious, relaxed, energetic, robust, frenetic, electrifying, and bi-tonal, with many unexpected and delightful turns and twists. Robinson's abundant creativity was at the forefront throughout the 29-minute work.
I doubt if the composer could have asked for a better delivery. The quintet negotiated the mercurial score, with its abrupt changes in tempo, dynamics, and style masterfully. The audience, delighted with the ensemble's performance and the acoustically pleasing room, provided a warm round of appreciative applause.