A composer with a new work for string quartet should look no further than the Ciompi Quartet for a completely successful premiere. These four players have given dozens of new works fine launches with their total commitment and interpretive insights.

This was again the case at the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Sights and Sounds on Sundays concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art on January 29, 2006. The Ciompi’s send-off this time was for “Chambers,” a string quartet from violist/composer Sherry Woods, a member of both the South Carolina Philharmonic and the Florence (SC) Symphony. The composer is a friend of Ciompi violinist Eric Pritchard and, through that link, the Ciompi commissioned the new piece for this specific concert at the NCMA.

Woods took her inspiration from ten mostly contemporary paintings and sculptures at the museum. In her introductory comments at Sunday’s performance, slides of each work were projected as she explained her choices and her reactions to them. The first movement, “Moving Forward,” came from seven paintings with images of the moon and sun in various parts of a day. The second movement, “Dance of the Elements,” was inspired by a painting depicting a ritual celebration of water, air, and fire. “Three Elements” evolved from three monolithic slabs on the museum grounds, and the final movement, “Rabble,” mirrors a hanging of hundreds of butterflies and flowers that form a jet plane when seen as a whole.

The work is not specifically programmatic, but seeing the art that inspired it beforehand did help focus attention on specific sections of the piece. The first movement was complicated and varied, alternating between serene calm and sudden violence. An intensely-felt, hymn-like melody for the first violin anchored the middle. High-pitched close harmony and swirling repeated phrases dotted the movement, giving the players a real workout. (Woods stated that she was glad wasn’t playing!). The second movement was a quietly lumbering dance with pizzicati and trills overlaying the jaunty melody. The third movement began as a near-lullaby with a sweetly melancholic violin line, then became more aggressively intense, building to a huge climax, then receding back to a sad calm. The final movement swarmed with shimmering color and buzzing rhythms, fluttering and flitting in a busy rush.

The second and fourth movements are the most appealing, with their focused structure. The first’s eclectic elements make it a bit diffuse, while the third wanders a bit after the big climax. However, as a showpiece for the talents of a quartet, it’s a winner, especially in this precise, confident Ciompi performance.

Pritchard stated that when Woods was consulted about what other pieces of music would be appropriate for the program, she immediately responded “Stravinsky and Brahms.” These might seem initially to be incongruous but after hearing the two other works on this program by those composers, it made perfect sense.

Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet” (1914), which opened the program, are still enigmatic and even shocking. “Danse” is a savage assault, its merrily grim repetitive phrases conjuring nightmarish images. “Excentrique” is indeed that, with spidery pizzicati interrupted by sudden thrusts, tempered by short lyrical moments. The downtrodden melody of “Cantique” has an eerie aura through which little rays of hope glint. The Ciompi made child’s play of these, drawing the audience into the moods of each piece and making one understand Stravinsky’s own assessment that these were some of his most successful compositions. There are definitely echoes and homages to these Stravinsky pieces in Woods’ work – especially some of the high, ghostly passages.

Woods also echoes the typical rich sonorities and energetic climaxes of Brahms in her work. Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, which ended the program, juxtaposed to the other two works, seemed much more modern than its date and composer. The quiet, tortured lines of the fourth movement’s opening sounded straight out of the Stravinsky. This is but one section of this work, usually referred to as one of Brahms’ most popular, that makes it atypical Brahms for me (obviously I’m in the minority). It always sounds so much looser, colder, and overwrought than other Brahms chamber works.

Pianist Benjamin Woods, a Professor of Music at Francis Marion University and Sherry’s husband, joined the Ciompi for the Quintet. Some of his contributions were muffled by the NCMA auditorium’s acoustics, the piano only coming through cleanly in quiet passages in the upper octaves. Despite a few fudged runs and chords, Woods gave ample support, coming into his own in the grandiose fire of the third movement. During the first two movements, there seemed to be a lack of cohesiveness, but the third and fourth movements really took off. Pritchard and his cohorts, Hsiao-mei Ku, Jonathan Bagg, and Fred Raimi, played with near-demonic fervor, making a satisfying finish to a most engaging afternoon.