Forty years ago, on July 11, 1965, Giorgio Ciompi debuted a string quartet at Duke. If you think about what was going on then, in Durham and indeed in the Triangle, you’ll realize what a remarkable event this was. Yes, there were faculty musicians here, and some of them performed. Indeed, there was a viable string quartet, led by Edgar Alden, at UNC; he’d played seminal roles in music hereabouts for two decades and was one of the founders of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, which featured mostly local players in its earliest years. The NC Symphony had been in and out of business for over 30 years, but it hadn’t yet obtained the Ford Foundation grant that launched it on the road that led to where it is today. Duke’s Artists Series and the Chamber Arts Society were (and remain) major platforms for visiting artists and ensembles; Raleigh had the Friends of the College series, based in NCSU’s Reynolds Coliseum. There were choral societies in Raleigh and Durham. There were orchestras at Duke and UNC and even NC State (which wasn’t a University then…), but no one could have imagined having community orchestras in all our cities – and scads of chamber groups, like we do now.

So when Ciompi came to Duke, it was a really big deal – and a bit of a gamble. It hasn’t always been easy, yet the Ciompi Quartet has remained there and is still a vital presence. Musically, it’s always been a praise-worthy ensemble, one that has maintained strong artistic standards and built and retained a strong following. That was evident during the foursome’s 40th anniversary program, given in the Kirby Horton Hall of the Doris Duke Center on July 10. The venue wasn’t the only atypical thing about the concert. The program, devoted to two mainstream works – Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Schubert’s Quartet No. 15, in G, D.887 – didn’t feature any modern music, the performance of which has been a hallmark of CQ programming for years. The place was packed, as one might have expected – there’s more room in what was called, in the early seasons, the East Duke Music Room, now known as the Nelson Music Room. As it happened, some latecomers were turned away, making one think that the program could well have been given twice. But there will be lots of opportunities to hear the group this season – and lots of opportunities to celebrate this milestone anniversary; one program will involve CQ alumni, and surely future programs will include bios of Giorgio Ciompi and notes on personnel, over the years.

Cellist Fred Raimi, the group’s senior member, spoke about Ciompi himself and praised Adrianna Ciompi, his widow, whose presence and support continue to enrich the lives of the quartet’s members and its audiences; about Mary and James Semans, who were largely responsible for bringing Giorgio Ciompi to Duke*; and about the contributions of Dorothy Bone, widow of the then-head of the Music Department (who was yet another renaissance man!). The program then began with the Mozart, for which the guest artist was clarinetist Arturo Ciompi. He’s Giorgio’s and Adrianna’s son and a product of this environment – he grew up here, attended the NCSA in its first year, went on to do great things in New York and elsewhere, and – like more than a few other musicians and music lovers – came home to NC, where he’s played from time to time – too little, many of us would surely say. He was in exceptional form on this occasion, and it was heartwarming to hear him once again play this great work with our quartet – the quartet with which, over the years, he’s played this score so many, many times. The strings were “up” and the performance was consistently, constantly engaging.

A brief pause preceded the Schubert, which seemed to glow from within, and which was enhanced by the view from the room and the overall ambience and excitement of the occasion. The program was, in retrospect, astutely chosen – who could complain about certifiably great works from the classic and romantic periods? It was more than enough, and the crowd embraced the artists – violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Raimi – with applause and an ovation that one thought might never have ended. A reception in the hall allowed for discussions and reminiscences. It was good, and here’s hoping for many more years of artistry from the CQ.

String quartets are special for all kinds of reasons, and the Ciompi Quartet’s artistic excellence, its consistency, its innovative programming, and the fact that its members are all here, living and teaching and playing among us, set it apart for Tar Heels. There are lots of quartets, and many of the best ones come calling from time to time, but the Ciompi is our quartet, and we are richly blessed to have it. For civilians (that is to say, people who aren’t Duke faculty or staff) who aren’t into sports, the Ciompi Quartet in many ways is Duke, and these artists have frequently taken Duke to other places, always representing the University handsomely. This writer has heard them at Mills College and at Monadnock and in various places outside Durham in our own state. This writer has also treasured the new music the CQ has championed and its innovative partnerships – a spectacular Dvorák festival that involved Giorgio Ciompi and his colleagues was surely one of the first important Duke-UNC collaborations, one that paved the way to much larger cooperative ventures in more recent years.

I remember that first season, 40 years ago. I was out of the country that summer and didn’t hear the opening concert, and I literally couldn’t find the East Duke Music Room on my first trip from UNC to Durham that fall – I still have problems getting around in the Bull City! I knew that Ciompi had come to America with the help of Arturo Toscanini and that he’d played in the NBC Symphony – but I consoled myself that night by speculating that a string quartet in Durham wasn’t likely to be all that hot – which shows how little I knew, back then. By the end of that first year, everyone knew that something extraordinary was happening at Duke – and it’s been happening there ever since.

Quartets are also nice to have around, when you think about it. It’s easier to get to know four people (and their families) than it is to form relationships (or friendships) with whole orchestras or choirs. And quartets tend to be stable – there’s been relatively little turnover in this ensemble – so it’s not unusual to see the members at other concerts or just here and there, out in town. But when all is said and done, it’s the music that matters, and the Ciompi Quartet’s members have delivered the goods for a long, long time, in their own concerts and in many, many others – as soloists, as section heads of various orchestras, as favorite performers for memorial concerts, etc., etc. So we rejoice at the group’s presence, we thank them for their faithful service to music, we congratulate them on their latest success, and we look forward to many more concerts in the years to come. Yep, we have our own quartet, and it is good. Happy anniversary!

*The concert was dedicated to the memory of Dr. James H. Semans.