The Ciompi Quartet, resident string quartet at Duke University, has, in part, lasted so long because of their intelligent, inventive and far-reaching programming. A typical concert would consist of a somewhat well-known traditional string quartet, a lesser-known work and usually a guest artist to augment the group and the string quartet repertoire. The opening concert of their 2007-08 season at Duke University surpassed all previous expectations in both selection and execution. In one concert we were treated to a microcosm of not only the Ciompi Quartet’s history, but a representation of everything that we hope for in a classical music concert.

Since tradition is not something to be sneered at, this quartet continues to kick off every season with homage to Haydn, the father of the string quartet as we know it today. Haydn is one of those composers who constantly surprise even those who consider themselves quite musically experienced and knowledgeable, and this opener was no different. Although we know many of his quartets, especially the titled ones like “Emperor,” “Lark,” and “Quinten,” there are many others which rarely get a chance to play outdoors. Haydn’s Op. 71, No.3 in E-flat is such a work — in fact none of the quartet members had ever played it! The piece is unusual in that it begins with a Presto movement that is more characteristic of a big finale. Like a sports team overcoming some opening season jitters and tentativeness, the beginning had some cobwebs to clear out, but once it kicked in, it was a beautiful, top-down ride. This bright, light-hearted work served as the prelude to works of unprecedented complexity and emotional turmoil.

Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins, along with Jonathan Bagg, viola and Fred Raimi, cello, comprise the Ciompi Quartet and they are all professors of music at Duke University. North Carolina has a wealth of outstanding musicians in every corner of the state and two of the finest were guest artists for this concert: violist Scott Rawls and cellist Brooks Whitehouse. Space does not permit even a partial bio, but anyone who has heard these players can vouch that they are second to none — anyone, anywhere. The string sextet that was formed with the addition of these two guests played Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” a work which has been described as the absolute edge of the envelope of traditional Western European harmonic practice. Written in the final year of the 19th century, it is based on a poem by Richard Dehmet filled with sexuality, the supernatural and powerful imagery. The six players were emotionally absorbed in this heart-wrenching text and the sinuous and sensuous nature of the shifting tonalities and temperament. While we may have been shortchanged a few cents of intonation on some of the high parts, the overall effect was mesmerizing and erotic.

While the Ciompi Quartet is well-known as a champion of contemporary music and has commissioned many new works, it still took some mental gymnastics to imagine them playing electric instruments, plus a variety of cymbals, gongs, maracas and water glasses — while chanting! George Crumb’s “Black Angels” for Electric String Quartet is the work
we had a unique opportunity to experience — and what an adventure it is. Written in 1970 as a response to the ongoing, seemingly never-ending Vietnam war (sound familiar?), this is a work of ingenious techniques, powerful references to an historical musical continuum and unprecedented demands on players’ technique and ensemble.

The work is divided into three main sections: Departure, Absence and Return with a total of 13 movements across the entire work. The relationship between the numbers 13 and 7, both musically and theologically, is a central component of the work — although even the composer admits that is hard to discern even after several hearings. It starts off with a frightening cacophony of rapid, high pitches that is appropriately and poetically called “Night of the Electric Insects” that returns near the conclusion. While to a casual listener much of the work appears unrelentingly radical, much of that fuses with ancient musical traditions to evince timelessness and a sense of being connected. Snippets of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is played while bowing behind the left hand, giving it an otherworldly trait. Just as quickly we switch to a section where metal thimbles are used to create a pointed, machine-like sound. Some effects are still baffling to me as when the players somehow changed pitches with just col legno (with the wood) bowing while the left hand did not change fingerings.
There are several sections where the three upper strings play a variety of harmonics and even bow filled water goblets while accompanied by the voice of God, the lone cello. Hope that didn’t go to Mr. Raimi’s head! One marvels at the preparation of this contemporary classic and the remarkable concentration needed to effectively play this challenging work. The Ciompi Quartet, playing this together for the first time, proved the equal of any ensemble of its kind.