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You see, there's this guy named Pressler, Menahem Pressler, who's gotta be sort of the granddaddy of chamber music piano players in this country. His list of credits is as long as the hash marks on the sleeves of crusty old boatswains of yore. He seems to have played with nearly everybody and to have played nearly everything, too. And he's been doing it for a long, long time. Indeed, your faithful scribe, whom some doubtless believe is a member of the Association of Certified Geezers (if not worse), was still in diapers when Pressler won his first big prize. We should all be so fortunate - how lucky he is to be doing what he clearly relishes, and getting paid for it, too!
Now getting Pressler was, in my humble opinion, something of a coup for Duke's Ciompi Quartet, but then one must reflect on the fact that the CQ has reached a certain level of maturity, too: this is its 40th anniversary. Few CVNCers question the technical and artistic prowess of our foursome, and on the occasion of the ensemble's season opener, presented on September 27 in Reynolds Theatre, there can have been few if any disappointments. The program began with Haydn's Quartet in G, Op. 33/5, one of the master's brightest, sunniest works and one of the first, too, to reflect the musical equality that seasoned chamber music fans seem to prize so highly nowadays - equality, that is, as opposed to the previous norm of first-fiddle dominance, at the expense of the other voices. The CQ had just come off a run of performances with the Carolina Ballet in which this Haydn gem figured. In Reynolds, they were out of the pit and center-stage, and the music seemed to glow from within.
There was more of the same in Britten's comparatively rarely-heard Third (and final) String Quartet, which many have dubbed the Death in Venice Quartet, because he was working on the opera as he wrote it, because the last movement is subtitled "La Serenissima," the poetic nickname (as CQ violist Jonathan Bagg's program note reminded us) of the great city, and because the score is said to be laden with annotations - and quotations - from the opera. It's not the most user-friendly piece in captivity, but Durham audiences had a leg up on the rest of the world because the Borromeo String Quartet had given Duke a little dose of Bartók this summer (all six of the Hungarian's quartets, in one extended session), and there are some strong similarities in the Britten that stood out in bold relief. The members of the CQ played it as if their lives depended on it, and the results were, to this listener, quite overwhelming. It another context, it might have sounded "strange," but here, at Duke, with these outstanding artists, it was something else again, with an almost other-worldly tinge, from time to time. The large audience - the hall was nearly full - seemed to sense the special nature of the performance and the occasion, too, and responded with warmth that was unusual, even for these much-loved artists.
Pressler was the star, and he emerged in the musical stratosphere after intermission, playing with the CQ Dvorák's famous Piano Quintet, in A, Op. 81. It's hard to imagine anyone not responding favorably to this music, although there may be such unfortunates. If so, they need to get over it - in part because we're in for lots of Dvorák this year and next, since 2004 is the 100th anniversary of his death. Pressler was - well - Pressler. There aren't many artists who are so animated and involved while playing. (Musicians with less experience and authority - and how many have his experience and authority? - come off as busy-body imitators when they carry on like Pressler....) His presence appeared salutary in many respects, seeming to influence the overall sweep of the reading and many felicitous details, too, but it was also a two- (or maybe five-) way street, and the CQ's distinguished players were throughout completely equal partners. That this was Dvorák that Dvorák might have recognized and approved was constantly apparent, not least in some of the grand portamenti that emerged from the usually so smooth and refined Ciompis.
Well, the place went wild - as wild as a chamber music crowd permits itself to do. There was a rare (for Duke) standing ovation and even some yells. It wasn't long before the artists came back, and Pressler announced a little encore that they'd prepared, thinking the crowd would have liked the Dvorák (see? experience counts!). The encore was the slow movement of Dvorák's friend Brahms' Piano Quintet, and its serene tones sent everyone off happily into the night.
Edited & Corrected 10/6/03*: For some, that happiness persisted only till they reached their cars. It was the day of a home football game at the Rockpile, and there's only one way out of the Bryan Center area, and getting out as the game ended was a zoo. And there is also this little problem with parking at Duke, as noted in an earlier review. For sports fans and other who skipped athletics for the arts, there's basically no free parking on West Campus anymore, anywhere, although the old surface lots are still there - and I think they were closed and basically empty on this night. The spaces in front of the Chapel were empty, too, and that drive was blocked off - for weddings, we were told. * This is a problem that is certain to cause Duke a whole passel of ill-will if not soon addressed - and that may impact attendance at events in Reynolds and the other Bryan Center halls, Page Auditorium, and Duke Chapel, too. There's free parking available at UNCG, at NCSU, in downtown Raleigh, even, and near many other venues, including those on Duke's East Campus. For now, however, there appears to be no viable alternative in the vicinity of the Chapel, so the price of culture at Dook has gone up $5 per carload.
*In the first edition of this note, posted 10/4, I reported that early-arriving football fans were not charged for access to the new deck, citing a "reliable source...." His reliability is assured, but he was speaking of a much earlier occasion - the home-football weekend of 9/6. Duke parking officials insist that there was no discrimination on 9/27 - everyone was charged. I regret the error but stand by the remaining statements, above. John W. Lambert.