For the final concert of the Milestones 2002 concert series, a cooperative effort between the Music Departments at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, the Ciompi Quartet played in Reynolds Theatre a wide-ranging program of contemporary music by Peter Alexander (b.1959), Duke faculty members Anthony Kelley (b.1965) and Scott Lindroth (b.1958), the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1943-98), and the fine American composer Ben Johnston (b.1926). Characteristically, the Ciompi Quartet played every work in a fully committed manner giving the audience not a glimpse of the hard work required to prepare for this concert and allowing each work to speak for itself.

The opening half of the concert featured Alexander’s “Phylum Mix” (1997), Kelley’s “Sidelines: Reflections on Three American Sports” (2002), and the String Quartet (1997) by Lindroth. Its composer describes “Phylum Mix” as “a contrapuntal work in which both meter and tonality are deliberately indefinable.” Shifting triple and compound meters played out over an audible big downbeat came through, as did the lovely imitation in the opening section between first violin and cello over pulsating accompaniment figures in the viola and second violin, a section the composer wisely reprised at the end of the work. The middle sections, plagued by flat-line dynamic levels and overly busy textures, were less successful.

Kelley’s “Sidelines” is in the composer’s estimation “a work in progress,” so any meaningful evaluation of the music will have to await its completion. Its premise, to musically capture the activity and vitality of basketball, baseball, and football, is an entertaining one, although the composer’s notes about the work deliver more than the music does in its current state. The basketball movement, a theme and variations in a blues idiom, was represented by its first variation (“Variation on the Jump”), and a fugue with a ragtime-style subject was chosen to represent the more ordered structure of baseball, even down to stating the already-long subject in augmentation at the seventh entrance to depict the now-traditional 7th inning stretch, an idea more successful intellectually than musically.

Written in a two-movement framework consisting of a slow, introductory movement followed by a longer, more rhythmically-active finale, Lindroth’s String Quartet came across as firmly rooted in the string quartet tradition rather than at odds with it, a fact acknowledged by the composer’s program notes. Of the two movements, the first was the more memorable, given its terse musical argument, striking initial melodic material, close voiced harmonies and gray, melancholy character, a mood enhanced by the use of mutes throughout. The link to tradition in this movement was most obvious in the prominence of the first violin part, which carried the important thematic material while the other instruments accompanied, a texture typical of many early string quartets from the mid-18th century. The finale featured more evenly distributed ensemble work among the instruments and the removal of the mutes made the quartet’s sound suddenly blossom after the subdued color of the first movement. The rolling, repetitive outer sections were alternated with a slower, more melodic section, and the faster, more rhythmic material seemed hard pressed to sustain the greater length imposed on it.

The closing half of the concert featured two works composed in the mid 1970s, the Piano Quintet (1972-76) of Schnittke and Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 (1974), subtitled “Amazing Grace.” Given their almost exact chronological proximity, two works less alike in mood, structure, and effect could hardly be imagined.

Joined by the guest artist, the fine pianist Sally Pinkas, a Professor at Dartmouth, the Ciompi began with the Schnittke. Made up of five linked sections (Moderato, In tempo di valse, Andante, Lento and Moderato Pastorale), this work starts bleakly and, as each section proceeds more slowly and hopelessly than the next, ends in total despair. The piano and quartet remain in conflict throughout the work, whose musical substance seems to encompass an argument about philosophy or politics or music, or perhaps all three at once, between two irreconcilable antagonists.

The piano began with a long solo introduction alternating sparse tonal and atonal gestures and ostinato motives between the highest and lowest registers of the keyboard, answered by melodic quarter tones, first in the cello, and then, finally, microtonal clusters played by the entire quartet. This ensemble conflict and the respective textures remained constant throughout the composition. Despite feeble attempts at jokes by the pianist, a repeated note in the highest register of the piano was played so many times in the opening section that it became a percussive click; then the clever use of the sustain pedal’s creaking in the third section to mark a quintuple pulse (2+3) and the microtonal peanut gallery represented by the quartet resolutely mocked and despaired of these sad attempts at humor. In the second section, traditional waltz accompaniments were played under quarter-tone melodic lines emanating from another musical plane where dance never existed, while in the last section, the ironically-named Moderato Pastorale (a designation that describes nothing about it accurately since it was neither moderate nor pastoral), the pianist struck one clear, blazing major chord born of frustration, was immediately rebuffed and then sank down, resigned to the irreconcilable nature of the conflict. By the end, the relentless quarter-tone clusters sounded as if the microtonal variants of one pitch were being revoiced in different combinations by each instrument, making the expressive qualities of the quarter tone as meaningless as the attempts at dialogue and cooperation heard in the piano part.

This is the most unrewarding piece of music I’ve ever heard in concert, and the audience seemed divided despite their appreciative applause for the artists’ perseverance. Immediately after the piece came to an end, a group several rows in front of me stood to applaud – they were probably composition graduate students – while elsewhere the disgruntled grumblings of other audience members could be clearly heard.

The evening concluded with Ben Johnston’s radiant String Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace”), a work that could hardly have been better chosen as an antidote to the desolate cynicism of the Schnittke Quintet. In brief verbal comments before the performance, the composer described the quartet as a response to a great crisis in his own life. A set of variations on the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the quartet features Johnston’s characteristic use of just intonation, a tuning system different from the tempered scale familiar to most Western European Art music listeners. Particular notes and intervals are more distinctly colored in this system than in the tempered scale, and Johnston also uses various microtonal divisions of the octave, interests passed down to him by teachers such as Harry Partch and John Cage.

The hymn tune is present in every variation, linking the quartet with older forms such as the cantus firmus mass of the Medieval and Renaissance eras or, perhaps a better model, the chorale prelude for organ familiar to us from the music of 17th and 18th century German composers like Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and J.S. Bach. Textures of great subtlety came and went as did sophisticated rhythmic relationships between parts; the tune seemed to emanate from a Pan Asian orchestra in a delicate, pentatonic guise in one variation or was heard as the tolling of a distant bell when presented in high harmonics on the cello against scurrying chromatic figuration in another. Here the microtonal alterations and varied divisions of the octave made the tune sound as if different voices were presenting the tune in succession from major, minor, pentatonic and perspectives in between, but its identity was never in question and the alterations revealed a different aspect of the melody on each repetition.

Johnston manages to evoke American folk idioms and the atmosphere of a revival meeting, with its moments of joy and hushed prayer, along with sounds and textures that presage world music and meld them together using sophisticated rhythmic and contrapuntal techniques in a manner that synthesizes tradition and innovation within an important individual creative statement. The work is firmly of its time and place as is the Schnittke but effectively reconciles the musical and philosophical conflict that the younger composer found hopeless and pointless. This music elicited the best performance of the night from the Ciompi despite being the final work on a physically and musically demanding program.

Audience members at this and other Milestone 2002 concerts have had the privilege of listening to music of our own time and place written mainly by living composers, four of whom were present for this final concert. The members of the Ciompi Quartet, in their own low-key style, are effective advocates of modern music, providing a great contrast to the rock-band-based aesthetics of the Kronos Quartet, for instance. Congratulations to the composers, performers and organizers involved in the Milestone 2002 series. I hope Duke and UNC Chapel Hill will continue this welcome musical collaboration and save the animosity and competition for secondary cultural venues like the basketball court.