If North Carolina were to run a contest to determine its favorite son in the classical business, the winner would almost certainly be Nicholas Kitchen, who was raised and trained in Durham. His feet, we were recently reminded, didn't touch the floor as he sat outside his teacher's studio, waiting for his lessons, but he learned those lessons well - so well, indeed, that for a time he seemed a dynamic clone of his chief local mentor, Giorgio Ciompi, a great fiddler of the old school whose style favored the violin-dominated ensemble work of previous generations. Ciompi's name lives on in the Duke-based quartet he founded, and his work lives on in players like Kitchen who are now taking their rightful places as soloists and chamber artists throughout the civilized world. One can profitably spend more than a little time reflecting on Ciompi's own performances, too few of which were preserved, but which many of our readers will recall, and on the evolution of the Ciompi Quartet under his and subsequent leadership.
It seems a much more democratic ensemble now, one in which artistic decisions are made by consensus, it would appear, rather than being imposed from the first violinist's chair, as one senses they were, once upon a time. This critic and many music lovers perceive that the classical art is found in its purest and most exalted form within our best string quartets, and there's little doubt that the Ciompi Quartet is one of our top such ensembles. In fairness, they are hardly alone, and there are many outstanding groups, including the group that Kitchen himself helped launch, the Boston-based Borromeo String Quartet ( http://www.borromeoquartet.org/ ), which even more than Duke's resident ensemble enjoys the world as its stage. But it would be unfair to claim that one is better than the other. They are, when all is said and done, merely different - they are diversely seasoned, as it were, by virtue of the backgrounds and artistic passions and skills of their members. If one views the Ciompi Quartet, which appears frequently in the Triangle, as the more mature ensemble, then one must concurrently see the Borromeo's players as exemplars of the next generation of great artists. That they retain boundless exuberance and freshness was readily apparent throughout the recent Duke concert.
The current roster of the BSQ makes it one of our United Nations groups, in that Kitchen, its nominal leader, is an American. William Fedkenheuer, the second violinist, is Canadian. Violist Mai Motobuchi is Japanese. And Yeesun Kim, the cellist (and spouse of Kitchen) is Korean. On June 24, the foursome offered an international program of mainstream classical works - Haydn's Quartet in E-Flat, H.III:64, Bartók's Third, and Beethoven's 12th. The encore, the slow movement of Debussy's Quartet, was the only French piece offered, and it was one of the evening's most sublime moments - this despite its frequent appearance here at the hands of the Ciompi Quartet and visiting ensembles. Bartók's three-section work, played without pause, was penned in 1927, making it hardly "contemporary," but it remains a dicey score, so it is good to be able to report that the BSQ made it sound like the masterwork it is and, concurrently, made an outstanding case for it. (It's definitely not an American work, of course, but if there had been any program notes they would surely have reported the fact that it was premiered here, in Philadelphia.) The Beethoven is a large and complex score that demands much of both the players and the audience. It, too, was handsomely realized by a group that has embarked on what we can only hope will be a complete recorded edition of Beethoven's quartets - Image Recording's new release of the "Serioso" and Third "Razumofsky" (to use Kitchen's spelling, as contained in program notes for the CD) was on sale at the concert (and we hope to post a review of it in the near future). In retrospect, the Haydn may have been the evening's high water mark, as far as the program's complete works were concerned. This master composer's music is often treated, like a Handel aria in a voice recital, as a warm-up piece, but the BSQ brought it to vivid life, reminding us once again that aside from the fairly frequent appearances of Haydn's name in chamber programs, his other music remains woefully neglected here.
There was a large turnout in Griffith Film Theatre for the concert, which was also the last offering in Duke's altogether commendable summer series, a series that, this year, has offered three outstanding ensembles and some guest soloists in some truly refreshing repertoire. The concert also marked the last official act of Susan Coon as Tsarina of Duke's cultural programming. Next week, she passes the reigns to Kathy Silbiger, who already heads Duke's Institute of the Arts and tends to the needs of the Ciompi Quartet, which falls under her purview, rather than the Music Department's. The BSQ played the Debussy encore in Coon's honor. We join them and her many admirers in thanking her for making it possible for countless fine groups to perform in Duke's several halls and for making it possible for all of us to hear them.
Note: We're not running remote festivals in our calendar this year, but members of the Kitchen Cabinet may wish to know that the violinist is Artistic Director of the Cape & Islands Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts, where he, the BSQ, and many artists who have performed here (including Miraim Fried, Dawn Upshaw, Corey Cerovsek, Todd Palmer and the Finckel & Han duo) will appear, starting August 6. For more information, see http://www.capecodchambermusic.org/ .