The best local way to feel the privileged musical life of the aristocracy of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s times is to attend a concert in the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities [http://www.weymouthcenter.org]. The concerts are a perk of membership whose dues help maintain the former house of N.C. historical novelist James Boyd and his wife Katherine Lamont Boyd. The lovingly preserved house is surrounded by gorgeous gardens sustained by volunteers. Mrs. Boyd, whose portrait dominates the back of what she called “a parlor or living room” but looks like a Georgian dinning room or small ballroom. It seats 100 but a few chairs can be squeezed in for non-subscribers.
The final of six chamber concerts of the 2012-13 season at the Weymouth Center featured Duke University’s treasured Ciompi String Quartet along with guest artist Joseph Robinson. He was Principal Oboe of the New York Philharmonic for 27 years (1978 - 2005) and is one of the last students of the legendary oboist Marcel Tabuteau. The quartet members are first violinist Eric Pritchard, second violinist Hsaio-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi.
Cellists owe a great deal to the patronage of Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. In the case of the last three string quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the so-called “Prussian Quartets” the king still owes the composer. Quartets nos. 21-23, (K. 575, K. 589, K. 590) were commissioned by the King but Mozart was never paid and had to pay for their issuance himself. The Ciompi Quartet chose Quartet in D, K. 575 to open their concert. Raimi introduced the piece, calling it “concertante” featuring each instrument as soloist in turn with much less “contrapuntal” scoring. Like the other two in the set, K. 575 has a sweetener for the King in the form of prominent, singing lines for the Royal’s instrument, the cello. The Ciompi played the quartet’s four movements with fine style and balance with glowing, warm tone in their solos. The intimate hall’s wonderful acoustics brought a strong element of physicality lost in larger venues. Raimi’s cello and Bagg’s viola sounded especially rich. Early on Prichard’s ff passages sounded a little harsh, not unexpected since he was playing a hastily borrowed violin on which he had little time to warm up. He soon blended as well as usual with Ku’s fine sound.
Raimi said the second selection, I ain’t broke, but I’m badly bent (Fantasies on well-known fiddle tunes) (2009), was an outgrowth of the quartet’s stint with a class on composing for string quartet at Duke. The musicians so liked the piece by David Kirkland Garner (b. 1982) that they asked him to expand it to its current setting of seven blue grass tunes. Tunes are often given a “modern” twist and it is interesting to hear the musicians conjuring up the sometimes “whiney” or sour sound of Appalachian fiddlers. The well-known No. 4 “Shady Grove” found the string players evoking the unique sound of the banjo! The mix of “country sounds” and avant guarde techniques was interesting. The variety of bowing and pizzicato techniques and sounds was amazing.
The oboe is seldom heard in chamber music concerts outside of music festivals. It was a real treat to hear the Quintet for Oboe and Strings (1922) by Arnold Bax (1883-1953). It is in three movements. The long, sinuous oboe melody which opens the first movement reminded me of the exotic “Eastern” music such as the orientalism found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or the Polovtsian Scene from Borodin’s Prince Igor. The very slow middle movement features a melancholy theme. The finale features three rollicking folk-song-based melodies evoking a hearty British atmosphere. The Ciompi musicians marvelously supported Robinson’s extensive solos which were spun out seamlessly with consummate breath control and a refined sense of color and tone.
Strong performances of Beethoven have been common since the ensemble’s early days under its 1965 founder violinist Giorgio Ciompi. Under his first successor, Bruce Berg, the quartet performed the entire cycle over a three year period. The current configuration continues the tradition of interpretative depth and instrumental skill. There was nothing routine about the Ciompi Quartet’s playing of the Quartet in C, Op. 59/3. This work is the last of three quartets commissioned by prince Andrey Razumovsky, at the time the Russian ambassador to Vienna. Balance and phrasing were superb and the give-and-take between the players swept up the listeners.
Musicians and music lovers were treated to splendid wine, cakes, and hors d’oeuves after the concert.