June 28 at 3:19 PM: Word of the death last night of the distinguished clarinetist and oenophile Arturo Ciompi comes as a body blow amid a sea of bad news. His father Giorgio played in Toscanini’s last orchestra and later established the Duke-based quartet that bears his name. Arturo conducted a little and was a serious contender to replace Vince Simonetti, founder of the Durham Symphony. His concerts with the Ciompi Quartet linger in the memory. His wife is the marvelous chanteuse Ellen Messina Ciompi. Our hearts go out to her and their extended family. RIP.

Her memorial follows below


Arturo Ciompi (September 6, 1949 – June 27, 2020)

Family man, musician, wine expert, movie lover, raconteur ‒ Arturo’s family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues remember him for all this and much more. Although his last year was marked by declining health, in many ways Arturo retained his inner “little boy” and wicked, quick, and quirky wit. He could find the hidden humor in even the most serious situation and was never happier than when he could share it and make folks laugh.

Music was in many ways the foundation of Arturo’s life from an early age. Listen­ing to his father, the renowned Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi, during practice sessions, lessons, and performances, gave him the great gift of consummate musicianship, with special attention to pitch and phrasing. Not wanting to compete with his dad, Arturo took up the clarinet, and colleagues and critics often commented that he played with the soul of a string player. After graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts with a Bachelor of Music degree (1972) and SUNY Stony Brook with a Masters of Music degree (1974), Arturo dove into the world of freelance music gigs in New York City, eventually playing and recording with the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, New York City Opera, American Symphony Orchestra, Sylvan Winds, and countless other chamber music groups. In the summers, he was on the faculty at the Kneisel Hall Festival in Blue Hill, Maine, and Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon.

In 1976, Arturo became an Assistant Professor in the music department at SUNY Albany, teaching clarinet and theory, and conducting the band. It was there that we met, and ‒ in those days before teacher/student relationships were cause for condem­nation ‒ started dating. (I saw those eyes that I always said were the color of Hershey bars, and that was IT.) Arturo left Albany in 1980, accepted a position as clarinet instructor at Princeton University, and moved back to NYC. We married in September 1981 and moved to Durham, NC, in January 1982 so Arturo could take a position as clarinet instructor and orchestra conductor at the Duke University Music Department. During that time, it was one of Arturo’s great joys that he was able to do many performances with his father and the Ciompi Quartet. After Giorgio’s sudden death in November 1983, it was a blessing that he was here in Durham and able to be a support to his mother, Adriana.

It was around this time that Arturo’s interest in wine began to occupy more and more of his time. “I was tired of getting ripped off,” was always his answer when people would ask what prompted him to learn about wine. He had taken a course with Kevin Zraly, who was the sommelier at Windows on the World (the restaurant atop the World Trade Center…, alas) and acquired some basic knowledge, but other than that Arturo was entirely self-taught and, as usual, set about becoming an expert in record time. I always thought it was a testament to both his wine knowledge AND his performance skills that he talked Bob Fowler, owner of the old Fowler’s Gourmet in Durham, into giving him the position of wine manager at the store when he had absolutely NO retail experience of any kind! As Fowler’s wine business boomed, the owner of A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, tired of losing so many sales, made Arturo the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, and Arturo ended up working there from 1987-98. Not content with success only in the retail arena, Arturo also had a weekly radio spot about wine on WUNC (the state’s public radio station), a wine column in both the local newspaper and the IndyWeek, and won multiple awards for his writing from the national Association of Food Journalists.

Along with a new job, 1987 brought our daughter Laura, closely followed in 1988 by our daughter Diana. Arturo absolutely adored being a father and was always ready for the kind of silly, whimsical, carefree horseplay that dads seem to specialize in. There are scores of photos of him with one child in each arm, complete with an “I am the luckiest guy in the world” grin on his face. When Laura married Robert Sanner in 2014, Arturo was so proud of her and her sister (the maid of honor) that he could hardly contain himself. And when little Malcolm came along in 2017, Arturo simply melted with delight right from the start. The relationship they had ‒ Malcolm and his beloved “Babbo” ‒ was absolutely enchanting and a joy to observe.

Years of lifting too many wine boxes, along with other chronic health issues, forced Arturo into retail retirement after he left A Southern Season. But he returned to practicing and playing, and for many years our home was visited by 4-5 students a week. A gifted and inspirational teacher, Arturo also coached small ensembles, got his students ready for various auditions, and frequently provided caring guidance counseling to his charges. Hearing live music in the house again, every day, was a great blessing in my life. I knew what “licks” Arturo would play when testing new reeds and would chuckle when I heard him say, “OUT!,” and toss the offending reed into the trash.

Arturo embraced Facebook with a vengeance for the past ten years or so, principally to reconnect with many of his friends from the early days of the NC School of the Arts. Sharing photos, laughs, reminiscences, and all sorts of memories from those crazy formative years of the school was one of his main diversions even as his health slowly deterio­rated. Arturo had a tendency to hoard random items, but, in this case, his boxes of NCSA memorabilia ‒ everything from concert programs to seating charts for what were daily meetings for all the students ‒ have provided endless grateful enjoyment for both his NCSA friends and the school’s archives. His 50th anniversary graduation reunion in Winston-Salem in 2017 showed that the love between him and his old classmates was touching and undiminished.

After a rather disastrous year for Arturo’s health in 2019, we sat on the couch on New Year’s Eve ‒ with a great bottle of Perrier-Jouet champagne, of course ‒ and toasted the debut of 2020, convinced it was going to be a major improvement. Then in February I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. In a complete role reversal, Arturo seamlessly shifted into being the cheerleader and caregiver for me as I under­went surgery and started chemo ‒ all complicated by the advent of COVID, lockdown, and isolation requirements in March. As we navigated each aspect of my treatment together, he was right there, consoling and steady and supportive and strong. It is one of many great sadnesses to me that he will not be there for the end of my treatments.

Nor will he be with us for the birth of a granddaughter, expected at the end of January, although thankfully he knew about, and celebrated, Laura’s pregnancy. We are all looking forward to the renewal of life which this birth will herald for our family. Arturo is also survived by his older brother, Nick, and a nephew, Christopher.

Arturo died at home, extremely quickly, and though the experience was trau­matic for me I take comfort in the knowledge that he never suffered ‒ and that I was at his side when it actually happened. Even as my daughters and I grieve, we bask in the outpouring of love and support, not only from friends and neighbors but also colleagues and acquaintances from all the facets of his life. The memories each person has shared are priceless and do so much to ease our pain. When the time is right and gatherings are again safe and permissible, I plan to have a celebration which will involve musician friends bringing instruments, wine friends helping raid the wine cellar, movie buffs com­ing with memories of Oscar parties and trivia nights, and naturally an ocean of love and laughs that we can all share in memory of the unique and extraordinary man who was my heart for over 40 years. Until then, please keep Arturo, me, Laura, and Diana in your thoughts, and know that we love you.

(For much more information, visit his webpage.)

Ellen Messina Ciompi