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Forty years ago, on July 11, 1965, Giorgio Ciompi launched a string quartet at Duke. If you think about what was going on then, in Durham and in the Triangle, you'll realize what a remarkable event this was. Yes, there were faculty musicians here, and some of them performed. Indeed, there was a viable string quartet, led by Edgar Alden, at UNC; he'd played seminal roles in music hereabouts for two decades and was one of the founders of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, which featured mostly local players in its earliest seasons. The NC Symphony had been in and out of business for over 30 years, but it hadn't yet obtained the Ford Foundation grant that launched it on the road that led to where it is today. Duke's Artists Series and the Chamber Arts Society were (and remain) major platforms for visiting artists and ensembles; Raleigh had the Friends of the College series, based in Reynolds Coliseum. There were large amateur choirs in Raleigh and Durham. There were orchestras at Duke and UNC and even at NC State College, but no one could have imagined having community orchestras in all our cities – and scads of chamber groups, too – like we do now.
So when James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans (and others) brought Ciompi to Duke, it was a really big deal – and a bit of a gamble. It hasn't been easy, yet the Ciompi Quartet has remained there and is still a vital presence. Musically, it's always been a praise-worthy ensemble, one that has maintained strong artistic standards and built and retained a strong following. Thinking back to those early years – before this writer took up formal criticism – one recalls that Ciompi himself was often the dominant force. The ensemble – the di Ceccos and Julia Mueller – coalesced around him, and he led it with keen enthusiasm and a distinctive brand of musicianship and artistry that would evolve as the founding members took departure and were replaced by other players. One of the delights of this ensemble has always been its outreach: its members have often engaged in other music-making here and there, beyond their commitment to the quartet. This tradition continues to the present day as the incumbents perform recitals, appear with orchestras, and participate in other ensembles, thus keeping their work fresh and vibrant. Teaching, too, has been part and parcel of the members' kits, starting with Ciompi himself – Durham's own Nicholas Kitchen is perhaps the best-known product of his Duke studio, but the leader of the Borromeo String Quartet is hardly the only artist whose technical and artistic heritage stems from hours spent with Ciompi. And who can forget the stellar players who gathered around him? Claudia Erdberg (Warburg) and Sharon Robinson arrived in 1973 – the latter went on to an international cello career, and Ciompi's second violinist was key to the growth of what is now the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. Violist George Taylor, who replaced Bruce Plumb, conducted that chamber orchestra's first concerts (at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church), making many stellar contributions, but it's the image of Ciompi and Taylor squaring off and going literally toe-to-toe in dynamic – and invariably dramatic – passages from the great quartet literature that lingers in the memory. When Taylor left for Eastman, he was replaced by Jonathan Bagg, now the ensemble's second senior member. And the other inner voice – that of the second violinist – has been in exceptional hands all along, too. It speaks much of the significance of chamber music in general and string quartet playing in particular – and of the importance of the Ciompi Quartet as a component of our cultural fabric – that when Claudia Bloom left the ensemble she was replaced by the distinguished associate concertmaster of the NC Symphony, Hsiao-mei Ku. Throughout Ciompi's last years and the difficult transition that followed his untimely death, cellist Fred Raimi was – and remains – the quartet's eloquent spokesman as well as its musical foundation stone. Bruce Berg's appointment as leader gave the ensemble new life and new direction – we remain in his debt. The engagement of Eric Pritchard, recruited from the Alexander Quartet in 1995, brought the CQ its current configuration.
At the foursome's 40th anniversary program, given in the Kirby Horton Hall of the Doris Duke Center on July 10, 2005, those fortunate enough to get in were treated to a somewhat atypical program devoted to two mainstream works – Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and Schubert's Quartet No. 15, in G, D.887. There wasn't any new music, but modern scores were featured in this anniversary season on the CQ's main series and in other performances. Raimi spoke about Ciompi himself and praised Adrianna Ciompi, his widow, whose presence and support continue to enrich the lives of the quartet's members and its audiences. He talked, too, about the Semans – the concert was dedicated to his memory – and about the contributions of Dorothy and Allan H. Bone, who was head of the Music Department when the quartet was established. The program then began with the Mozart, for which the guest artist was clarinetist Arturo Ciompi – Giorgio's and Adrianna's son, who went on to do great things in New York and elsewhere before coming home to NC. It was heartwarming to hear him once again perform this great work with our quartet – the quartet with which, over the years, he's played the score many, many times. A brief pause preceded the Schubert, which seemed to glow from within. The crowd embraced the artists – violinists Pritchard and Ku, violist Bagg, and cellist Raimi – with applause and an ovation that one thought might never end.
String quartets are special for all kinds of reasons, and the Ciompi Quartet's artistic excellence, its consistency, its innovative programming, and the fact that its members are all here, living and teaching and playing among us, set it apart for Tar Heels. There are lots of quartets, and many of the best ones come calling from time to time, but the Ciompi is our quartet, and we are richly blessed to have it. For music lovers, the Ciompi Quartet in many ways is Duke, and these artists have frequently taken Duke to other places, always representing the University handsomely. This writer has heard them at Mills College and at Monadnock and in various places outside Durham in our own state, and of course they've taken music – and, in effect, Duke – around the world. They've given exceptional service to works by living composers – Duke students and faculty and other leading creators of our time. And they've long championed innovative partnerships and collaborations, more than a few of which the founder himself initiated – a spectacular Dvorák festival that involved Giorgio Ciompi and his colleagues was among the first important Duke-UNC collaborations, and it paved the way to much larger cooperative ventures in more recent years.
I remember that first season, 40 years ago. I was out of the country that summer and didn't hear the opening concert, and I literally couldn't find the East Duke Music Room on my first trip from UNC to Durham that fall – I still have problems getting around in the Bull City (but I've figured out how to find the CQ's venues...). I knew that Ciompi had come to America with the help of Arturo Toscanini and that he'd played in the NBC Symphony – but I consoled myself that night by speculating that a string quartet in Durham wasn't likely to be all that hot – which shows how little I knew, back then. By the end of that first year, everyone knew that something extraordinary was happening at Duke – and it's been happening there ever since.
Quartets are also nice to have around, when you think about it. It's easier to get to know four people (and their families) than it is to form relationships (or friendships) with whole orchestras or choirs. And quartets tend to be engaged, engaging, and stable, so it's not unusual to see the members at other concerts or just here and there, out in town. But when all is said and done, it's the music that matters, and the Ciompi Quartet's members have delivered the goods for a long, long time. As this 40th anniversary season winds down, we rejoice at the group's presence, we thank them for their faithful service to music, we congratulate them on their successes, and we look forward to many more concerts in the years to come. Yep, we have our own quartet, and it is good. Happy anniversary!
Chronology of Permanent CQ Personnel:
1st violin: Giorgio Ciompi (> 1983); Bruce Berg (1984-93); guest artists (1994-5); Eric Pritchard (1995 >)
2nd violin: Arlene di Cecco (> 1973); Claudia Erdberg (Warburg) (1973-81); Claudia Bloom (1981-91); Hsiao-mei Ku (1991 >)
viola: Julia Mueller (> 1975); Bruce Plumb (1975-79); George Taylor (1979-86); Jonathan Bagg (1986 >)
cello: Luca di Cecco (> 1973); Sharon Robinson (1973-74); Fred Raimi (1974 >)
(Thanks to Alexander Silbiger, Duke Performances, and the Ciompi Quartet for providing this roster.)