The Ciompi Quartet of Duke University was established in 1965. The Gothic Rockpile’s resident quartet is viewed by many Triangle music lovers as “our quartet,” the performing ensemble that has served the region longer than most others, and with – it might well be argued – the most consistently distinguished artistry. Yes, there are older groups – the NC Symphony, the NC Master Chorale, the Choral Society of Durham. And there are older presenters – Duke Performances, Carolina Performing Arts, Chamber Music Raleigh (to give the current names of these organizations).

For 44 of those 53 Ciompi years, the cellist has been Fred Raimi. (An account of the quartet’s first 40 years can be found in an earlier CVNC feature article.)

Raimi played with what might justifiably be called “his” quartet for the last time in Baldwin Auditorium on a balmy spring evening.

It was an impressive leave-taking, focused on music instead of personality, music by Mozart and Haydn and Brahms. “Junior” Ciompi members, second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku and first violinist and relative newcomer Eric Pritchard (we are using some of these adjectives loosely) provided the two upper voices. On this exceptional evening, the violist was Raimi’s brother Max, a distinguished composer (whose works have been heard here with considerable frequency) and member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sitting in for the second Brahms viola quintet was Rachel Kuipers Yonan, whose performance with “our quartet” earlier this season was noted in CVNC‘s review of the CQ’s opening concert.

The evening thus had some hallmarks of a family affair, with brothers supporting each other, musically and most certainly in other respects as well. This was of course to have been a different program, with a different guest, in the form of Fred’s spouse, pianist Jane Hawkins, the beloved keyboard artist and former chair of the music department, whose untimely passing so tragically disrupted not only the Raimi family but also the extended music community in the Triangle and beyond. So this was yet another in what may well be an ongoing series of bittersweet farewells around here of late….

Shut your eyes and you can perhaps hear critics who were working at the time of the birth of the Ciompi Quartet – including Nell Hirschberg and Peregrine White – saying (from beyond the grave):
          Well, how was the concert?

Well, it was outstanding in nearly every respect.

Few conductors play Haydn and Mozart with comparable élan. This tends to apply to string quartets, too. But the Ciompi Quartet has been nailing Haydn with exceptional skill and keen insight for as long as some of us can remember, and its Mozart is comparably fine. This program began with Mozart’s Quartet in A, K.464, aptly described in notes by Fred Raimi that should be required reading for anyone seeking enhanced awareness of this music’s special qualities. The performance was superb, marked by the ensemble’s habitual precision, incisiveness, meticulous attention to dynamics, and perfectly proportioned phrasing, in the context of which each individual voice had – and seized – ample opportunities to shine.

One would normally open a program like this with Haydn, but the appearance of the Quartet in C, H.III:32, after the Mozart in fact enhanced its many charms and delights. It’s often been said that distinguishing characteristics of the CQ’s Haydn include passion and intensity, qualities that were in considerable evidence here. Again, the playing was at the very highest level, and the sense of ensemble was remarkable, particularly given the fact that Max Raimi is not a regular member. The many little passages in which the viola and the cello carried on dialogue were especially heart-warming.

The second of Brahms’ viola quintets, Op. 111, featured Max Raimi as first viola and Yonan as second. The seating placed Fred Raimi in the center – appropriately, some surely thought, as he was in fact a center of attention on this occasion, although there’s little doubt he’d prefer to have us center instead on the music, The Brahms, with its autumnal colors, facilitated by its darker-than-usual instrumental palette, proved an ideal vehicle for this last part of tribute and farewell to a great artist whose exceptional service will now be inscribed in the annals of our musical lives. The music seemed to glow from within, and when it ended in triumph, following all that reflection, the audience erupted with applause and cheers, the standing crowd calling the artists back again and again till Fred himself curtsied as if to say “Enough already!”

There followed a reception on the front porch of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building to which the entire audience was invited, thus providing the proverbial icing on the retirement cake.

For the record, Fred Raimi will remain a member of Duke’s Department of Music next season as cellist Caroline Stinson (formerly of the Lark Quartet) assumes duties as the CQ’s newest member. And Fans of Fred – whose nickname Frederic the Great was earned in his years of exceptional service to the arts and education – should note that he may be heard once more this summer, in the third of three concerts being offered at Kirby Horton Hall that will feature Stinson in June, Bagg in July, and Pritchard and Raimi in August. Stay tuned for dates and details.

PS The place was crawling with cellists, present to pay tribute to their esteemed colleague. And – particularly speaking of the Lark – there was more cello playing earlier the same day, at the moving memorial farewell to Paul Green, Jr., during which music was offered by cellists Nancy Green (Paul’s daughter), Astrid Schween (Paul’s daughter-in-law, formerly with the Lark, now with the Juilliard), Emma Dunlap-Grube (of the Chapel Hill School of Musical Arts), and Lindsay Stipe (of Meredith College) – along with pianists Dorrit Green (Paul’s sister) and Fred Moyer (Paul’s nephew). It was a good day for cellists – and for reflection.