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The annual collaborations of the Music Departments of Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill to showcase contemporary music have been success stories, musically, and are great examples of what two "competing" institutions can accomplish when they combine their best and brightest.
A weeklong celebration called "Milestones 2004" continued November 20 in Duke's Reynolds Auditorium with the Ciompi Quartet. They played a wonderful mixture of pieces ranging from the unabashedly romantic to a work written just four years ago that is ferociously challenging and that seems to defy some basic principles of mathematics!
Those of us who love the three "B's" and other traditional works and also look forward to venturing into the unknown are fortunate to have the Ciompi Quartet to satisfy all our musical cravings. They have played integral parts in commissioning, premiering or championing many new works, including quite a few written by local composers. They display the same work ethic and sensitivity to some nearly indecipherable works that they bring to, say, a late Beethoven quartet. Before this concert, I was fortunate to gain access to one of their rehearsals for the Piano Quintet by Thomas Adés. No detail was spared, and seemingly minute points that would certainly have gone unnoticed by the typical listener were painstakingly analyzed and polished. The "overnight" successes of their performances are realized because of the hours of work they invest behind the scenes.
Since the 1990s, the absurdly young British composer Thomas Adés (born 1971) has been hailed as leading a new wave of influential Englishmen not seen or heard since Walton, Vaughan Williams and Finzi. New York-based pianist Alan Feinberg joined the quartet for a treacherous journey through the single-movement piano quintet written by Adés in 2000. Sometimes listeners and even players confuse a composition's accessibility with its creativity and interest. Make no mistake, this is a dense, difficult work – it is not something to put your mind on vacation while listening to it, but it certainly draws you into its unique world, and – as in the development of characters in a play – it piques your curiosity as to what will happen next. This was a performance without a net – especially rhythmically which, as any musician will tell you, is what separates the boys from the men. While it is nearly impossible to gauge the rhythmic "accuracy" of a new, unfamiliar work such as this, Feinberg and the quartet gave a remarkably vibrant, confident, and captivating reading that at times transported the listener to new worlds.
As if gently to lead into the other-worldliness of the Adés, the Ciompi Quartet started off the evening with another "contemporary" and seldom played work, the Third String Quartet of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. Commenting on the string quartets of Schnittke, someone behind me remarked before the concert that "they were all recorded by the Kronos quartet, so they have to be weird." I presume that it was implied that "weird" equals bad. Again, thanks to the innovative programming of the Ciompi Quartet, I was introduced to a work that I would probably not have searched out on my own.
Schnittke has a virtuoso grasp on compositional styles of all time periods, and he combines the old and new so they co-exist in a natural manner. The slow-fast-slow movements almost recall a baroque trio sonata. The quartet played this very difficult work with effortless abandon and was able to transcend the complexities to get to the core of the music. Even those afraid of the pre-ordained "weirdness" were converted.
This was a non-traditional quartet program in several respects, one of which was that none of the works played was in the standard four-movement format. We had a three-movement quartet, a quintet in one continuous movement, and, in the second half, a quartet in five distinct movements. Jean Sibelius lived a very long life, and chamber music is not something he was known for. Many consider his String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56, subtitled "Intimate Voices," to be his only chamber work of any consequence. It is a work containing warm, charming folk melodies, brilliant string writing, and great extremes of emotion. There is little, if any, of the "iciness" that is often used to describe the symphonies for which Sibelius is best known. The structure of the quartet is almost a reverse arch form – the middle (third) movement seems to descend into a valley and then slowly climb its way out, leading to the extroverted final movements. As presented at Duke, the fifth movement of this unique quartet was an experience one wished everyone could hear. It has the potential to become a complete runaway train, but all members of the quartet were in complete control of the increasing acceleration and energy. The performance was a remarkable display of virtuosity, endurance and telepathic synchronicity.