Coping with crisisThe fine Ciompi Quartet, now 55 years old, is the resident string quartet at Duke University. The members are all on the faculty at Duke, where they perform, teach instrumental lessons, and coach chamber music. They are Eric Pritchard, first violin, Hsiao-Mei Ku, second violin, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and the group’s newest member, Caroline Stinson, cello, who joined in 2018. On this occasion they were joined by their superb Duke University colleague, Ieva Jocubavicuite, piano (EeYEHva JocubaviCHUteh).

The quartet has performed around the U.S. and in a number of other countries, and has many recordings to its credit. The have also collaborated with other distinguished musicians such as Menahem Pressler and Branford Marsalis.

This concert took place at Duke’s architecturally distinctive Baldwin Auditorium which, for this occasion, still affected by the pandemic, was empty. In normal times the hall serves regularly as one of the public locales for the Duke Performances series. The program consisted of two works. The first was a quartet commissioned by the Ciompi: “Soleil Noir,” written in 2020 and heard here in its world premiere. The composer was John Supko, also on the faculty at Duke, a winner of numerous prizes and grants whose music appears in both publication and recording.

The nine-minute “Soleil Noir” (Black Sun) works almost entirely with the idea, in various guises, of energetic rhythmic – one might say violent – chords punctuating an anguished leading line. As the program notes for the piece describe, the name comes from a line in the famous film Belle de Jour by Luis Buñuel, starring the equally famous Catherine Deneuve. The association in the composer’s mind was of something “sinister-absurd” approaching inexorably. A mélange of ideas actually came together as the background for the piece, from a composer who is a lover of French culture.

The performance was strong. The players effectively matched irregular, hair-trigger chordal group rhythms throughout to give the music force and precision. Pritchard gets special notice for his command of a challenging part. He had the bulk of the leading line to carry, around the complicated rhythms, as well as difficult figures and leaps, and quite a bit of demanding high-range playing. He was most excellent.

The end of the piece was memorable. Finally, the continual loud of the punctuating chords comes to a stop. The first violin and viola play for almost half a minute in a high-range skittering, chattering sound which could come from some terrifying machine. Then the other two instruments return to accompany them, softly at last, in pizzicato chords which this time fade away, leaving the chattering on its own until it abruptly ceases a few seconds later, as though chopped off in mid-phrase.

The piece calls for great energy and concentration all the way through, which the quartet delivered admirably in this first performance. For this listener, the dialectic of “sinister-absurd” is not what came over, rather it was sinister from start to finish. The quartet compellingly delivered the portrait of a terrible autumn “sun that devours light,” as the composer so descriptively put it.

The other work on the program was the Piano Quintet in F minor by César Franck. The piece is a ravishing staple of the romantic literature. It was arguably not an ideal pairing with “Black Sun,” as the result was a program of unremitting intensity without a moment of lightness. On the other hand, the sheer power and beauty of the Franck, and the lyrical contrast with the piece before, made it an experience to savor.

The quartet was joined for this work by Jocubavicuite. She is a pianist of note, performing in major American cities and having also appeared with the Chicago Symphony. Her piano trio won the Naumburg International chamber music prize in 2009.

After the quartet’s dramatic first presentation in the Franck, Jocubavicuite immediately drew the attention of the listener with the lush expressivity of her solo statement. That opening promise was entirely fulfilled. The piano part of this piece is fearsomely difficult, one of the most challenging in the entire chamber literature. Jocubavicuite handled the part with complete technical command, even flair. She also possessed great sensitivity, in expressive lines and in changes of color, as bass lines would ease into the sound with subtle richness. The writing in the piece is very thick and could become turgid. With only one or two exceptions, Jocubavicuite balanced the quartet, where both her lines and those of the ensemble were clear and beautifully dovetailed.

The quartet matched the piano in expression and richness. There was a great deal of inner and outward fire in the performance. On the quiet end of the spectrum, one could note how the lower instruments would swell to take over lines, or slide in quietly to create a full resonant sound. Lines interchanged sensitively. There were times when one wished that Pritchard, as first violin, would take greater musical command. He always blended well, as did the entire group. At other times the first violin needed to stand out more compellingly in terms of sheer sonority, or in intensity, as in the impassioned opening of the second movement. Regardless, the thirty-five minutes of this masterwork were projected in a most convincing dramatic arc.

This concert shows that the virtual medium has come of age. The string quartet sound was crisp and clean. The picture was too; a variety of changing camera angles lent ongoing visual interest and responded to the shifting musical events, often following the leading instruments. A scroll bar made it possible to pause and revisit at will. The technicians were Chris Boerner, audio recording, Sonny Enslen, video recording, and Mark Manring, video recording and editing. They deserve significant credit for the quality of the event. This was a model of how successful the virtual format can be, and of how large numbers of listeners can fruitfully experience performances which they otherwise would not have heard.

This performance will is available to view through Tuesday, April 20th. See our sidebar for details.