This performance by the Ciompi Quartet is best summarized by a comment from guest lecturer and professor emeritus Bryan Gilliam of Duke University: “There’s nothing happy about it at all.” Bookended by two very personal pieces about compounded grief, hopelessness, and trauma, the concert demanded a degree of vulnerability from the audience that was borderline risky. I’ve previously heard the Ciompi Quartet perform selections from Florence Price‘s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, an exciting and invigoration collection of songs which they played with so much warmth and clarity. With such a dismal program before them for this concert, I was excited to experience the breadth of the ensemble’s range of expression.

The tone of the first selection, In Memory by Joan Tower, was set immediately with a tragic violin solo from Eric Pritchard. Completely alone, the unguided solo sounded stunned, as if detached in disbelief. Eventually, the solo violin was joined by Hsiao-Mei Ku on second. Her part mimicked the original solo, expressing commiseration of a shared tragedy. When introducing this piece, violist Jonathan Bagg explained that the composer began it as a dedication to a friend who had passed away the same summer. However, what began as bereavement mutated into anguish. Two months into the piece’s composition, the 9/11 attacks unfolded for the world to see. In the words of the composer, Tower says her existing pain was amplified and resulted in the current intensity of the piece. The mimicry between the two violinists interplayed with increasing intensity until both reached a panicked frenzy. The distress only lasted briefly before the ensemble’s sound transformed again, creating the sensation of bargaining with loss. And again, sadness was replaced with the same numbness from the beginning solo. The piece went on in this way, turning inwards and then erupting to reveal the stifled turmoil. Unlike the power usually generated by scoring octaves in an ensemble, the final notes are conclusive not in triumph but in resignation. Weakened and defeated, the ensuing applause felt jarring.

Unlike the Tower piece in almost every way, Sergey Prokofiev‘s String Quartet No. 2 in F was an immediate reset. Bringing the first movement to life, the Ciompi Quartet depicted a landscape of simplicity and optimism. The work is based on folk music traditions from indigenous populations in Southwestern Russia (now the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic), collected by Prokofiev. Although the sensibility of the piece is pleasing and at times even joyful, there is a certain blissful ignorance to it as well. Speckled with snippets of momentary heartache, the second movement takes on a character that is strangely foreboding near its end. The piece was not just composed because Prokofiev took on an interest in folk music; he was encouraged to use such material while he was taking refuge in the Southwest shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia.

The final piece of the night, Richard StraussMetamorphosen for 23 strings, required some explanation before the performance. Professor Gilliam took his place at the lectern situated center stage and walked us through the inner machinations of the piece. In establishing his authority on Strauss’ life, I was starstruck when Gilliam admitted that he and his wife spent time vacationing with Strauss’ daughter-in-law who was there with the composer on his deathbed. Composed after Strauss’ official retirement as a composer, Metamorphosen is a bit of an oddball in Strauss’ literature. Gilliam explained that Strauss believed that music was able to transform the individual into the divine. It’s the loss of this divinity through music that Strauss may be mourning. Written after the bombing of Germany in WWII, many of the country’s grand musical centers were destroyed, smashing a rich tradition of art music that was celebrated going back to J.S. Bach. In mourning the destruction of his home country’s culture by the Nazi Party, Strauss references the famous funeral of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ”Eroica.” But instead of the dignified procession presented by Beethoven, Strauss takes the familiar tune and mutilates it. Gilliam’s most apt description of the piece was his comparison to another Strauss work, Death and Transfiguration. Unlike Death and Transfiguration, which moves from C minor to C major in triumph, Metamorphosen “retains C minor to the bitter end.” Although Gilliam’s presentation was at times silly and would have benefited from more coordination, I was grateful that he was generous enough to share his wisdom with us and bring an incredibly cerebral piece to a place of accessibility.

After such a severe description, I found that the performance by the Ciompi Quartet and Duke alumnus fell a little short. I often found it difficult to hear the most important lines through the texture, and inconsistent tempo and intonation made the listening a little uneasy for myself. However, the cohesive moments that did emerge had a brilliance of sound characteristic of the Duke Performances series. Although it was not a perfect performance, I would like to make special mention for cellist Caroline Stinson. From the first cello soli of the work, Stinson established her leadership as the visual and sonic focal point of the performance.

The Ciompi Quartet chose an emotionally ambitious program. Although I found intonation and clarity to be rather patchy through parts of the performance, I still believe most of the quartet’s intention reached the audience. Their commitment to the theme of struggling through loss was overarching and yet still presented a perspective that was multifaceted. The compositions on the program shared a similar theme, but the way each composer processed their loss through composition was personal. After such a charged concert, I could feel anxiety rising up in me. The music had rekindled some latent hopelessness connected to what seems like inescapable social and political unrest around us. But thinking about the potential for losing hope reminded me how even a small commitment to a better world is radical. When the temptation to forget goodness, turn a blind eye, or give in is so strong, any act of resistance is audacious.