“Quotation & Variation” was the title of cellist Caroline Stinson‘s first full concert at Duke, her new home. She’s the incoming cellist of the Ciompi Quartet. She comes to our community with a boatload of experience, most notably with the Lark Quartet. For the first of three summer concerts being offered at Kirby Horton Hall, on the lip of Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Stinson chose a remarkable and generous program of music by Lutosławski, Andrew Waggoner (her husband), Schulhoff, and Bach. Her guest artists were violinist Nurit Pacht and violist Kathryn Lockwood, who is currently the Lark’s violist. (Readers will remember that another Lark alum and Stinson’s immediate predecessor there, Astrid Schween, is now the cellist of the Juilliard Quartet.)

Lutosławski’s Bucolics, five short pieces, originally for piano (1952), was arranged for viola and cello a decade later. These are folk-informed works, intended to appeal to the public and politicians, too – the composer created far more radical pieces, some of which set off significant reverberations later in his career. At Duke, in a congenial, intimate setting, Lockwood and Stinson played these richly varied vignettes with evident insight and understanding, in the process making great impressions on their attentive listeners. Stinson commented on the music as the program progressed.

Waggoner’s …il ne reste que vous…, for violin and cello, was premiered just three months ago, in the village that prides itself as “the gateway to the Catskills.” It seems cut from the same fabric as the scores that bracketed it in Durham, which is to say, folk-inspired and basically introspective, with felicitous lines for both instruments, skillfully managed to ensure frequent dialogue. Violinist Pacht brought high levels of intensity to her playing, complemented throughout by Stinson. Their approaches to phrasing were of special note, here and elsewhere during this concert: one often thought of great vocalists, producing long, sinuous lines in their music.

Schulhoff has come to be recognized as one of the great masters of his time; whenever we hear his music, we are reminded of the magnitude of our loss when he succumbed to tuberculosis in a concentration camp in Bavaria in 1942. His Duo, for violin and viola, dates from somewhat happier times, in 1925, but his relations with his publisher had been strained from the outset, and there is darkness in this music, foreshadowing darkness that was to come…. The four-movement composition was dedicated to Janácek, and it speaks of Czech folk tunes. The quotations here and earlier were realized with energy, passion, and incisiveness, in turn eliciting enthusiastic response from the crowd.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations aren’t for every day, and adaptations of them are rare. Violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky, currently music director of the Greensboro Symphony, completed a transcription for string trio in 1984 (inspired by Gould, and revisited since then) that has been heard from time to time, most recently (in the Triangle) in 2010. This version casts new light on the music, although one remains uncertain if the “new light” comes from the enhanced textures and sonorities or because we all listen more intently to ascertain the differences. Those differences are manifest, but Gould himself helped that process along, playing both his famous recordings on what mainliners might call “real pianos” as opposed to historic instruments or reconstructions thereof. But Bach lends himself to this sort of treatment, eh? Surely, no composer has been subjected to more updating – more successful adaptation. So Sitkovetsky’s version merits – nay, commands – our attention. And on this occasion, in this hall, with these artists, the traversal of the Aria with 30 Variations known as the Goldberg Variations, S.988, composed in 1742 – formally, Part IV of JSB’s Klavierübung – was a complete revelation.

Several things stood out during the performance, chief among which were the absolute clarity of the playing, from all three artists, and their magnificent delineation of the many sections of the score. Under other circumstances, one might have complained about the lack of printed notes or listings of the component parts, but here, the revelatory miracle was that we knew at every moment precisely where we were in the course of the work, as variation after variation unfolded. It’s a long sit (as someone once said) between the opening statement of the aria and the end of the restatement thereof some 69 minutes later (as played here). There were few coughs, no rustlings, no fuss or noticeable twitchings. All seemed spellbound, captivated, entranced, and enchanted. Yes, it was that kind of evening.

Welcome, Caroline Stinson. The low voice of our quartet will be in good hands.

And thanks, distinguished guests.

Note: To read Duke’s announcement of Stinson’s appointment, click here. And to read the preview for this concert, click here.