The long-standing artistic partnership between Duke’s Ciompi Quartet and Chicago-based composer Max Raimi has resulted in the creation of yet another outstanding chamber music work, this time a Quintet for tenor saxophone and string quartet. Max Raimi, a violist, is a 25-year vet of the Chicago Symphony who might be said to dabble in composition on the side, as it were, but his efforts represent far more than that, and he’s produced a vast quantity of music, only some of which we’ve heard here, in NC, over the years. That we’ve heard as much as we have is partly because Max’s brother is the Ciompi Quartet’s cellist – but chances are the music would have bubbled to the surface even without Fred Raimi’s presence, for this is first-rate musical fare. And it helps that on this occasion the quartet’s artistic partner is the brilliant young American saxophonist Susan Fancher, late of UNCG’s faculty but now affiliated with Duke. It’s one of the happier reallocations of resources hereabouts in years.

The new work was heard in a “First Course” concert in Duke’s East Campus Nelson Music Room early on the evening of Thursday the 15th. Presumably this was its official premiere – we’ve carried on from time to time about the fact that there is only one such occasion – but this was the first of two performances this week so chances are the repeat, on Sunday afternoon, on Duke’s West Campus, will be called a premiere, too. No matter this time, for there’s enough richness involved for it to count handsomely (although to tell the truth, the Thursday night patrons probably got a better deal, for the composer spoke, the musicians played some examples to illustrate the remarks, the wonderful room helped the smallish crowd embrace the music, the ticket price was low – and on top of all that, there was no charge for parking).

Now a word about the saxophone, invented in 1841 by a Belgian with a German-sounding name, embraced by Berlioz and given extreme prominence by Bizet in L’Arlésienne. Even as old as it is, its sound is so distinctive in an orchestra that it practically jumps out at you when you hear it. This makes it a bear to blend with strings, so the first thing that must be said about Max Raimi’s new work is that he has accomplished an amazing bit of compositional wizardry in his integration of the texture and timbre of this reed instrument with a conventional string quartet. It helps that the Ciompis are passionate about new music and that Fancher is about as good as they come in terms of her technical and artistic prowess.

It’s a very accessible work, too, and there’s much to admire in it that even folks who don’t attend a lot of chamber music programs can and will relish. There’s lots of energy and variety in the first movement (“Exhortation”) as the sax and the strings establish themselves and then devise some sort of rapport. The second movement (“Inebriation”) sounds a lot like Chicago – it’s bold, brassy, jazzy, and not too far removed from what an imaginative drunk with a penchant for music might hear in his mind’s ear – if not with one ear pressed against the bar while recharging his (or her…) batteries before another round. The finale (“Lamentation”) is a compositionally rich entwining of two themes – a familiar Christian hymn with a distinctive tune (“In the Sweet By and By”) and a far more straightforward Jewish liturgical (not Yiddish or Klezmer) melody (“Ani Ma’amim”).  At this “First Course” program (and in his program notes, which will likely be included in the 10/18 program), the composer explained the juxtaposition of these melodies and his intent. For this listener, the more prominent first tune seemed to dominate the movement, although I will grant that it often takes several hearings before new works really settle in. The net result, at this first hearing, was that the finale seemed a good deal more positive than its title suggested – for sure, it was not a breast-beating or even down-at-the-heel lament but rather something like a New Orleans sendoff to the hereafter, as if filtered through a world view tinged by Charles Ives.

Max Raimi’s written note ends with a comment about “the inherent differences between the strings and the sax”: it’s true that they can and often do “remain separate like oil and water even when they are playing together,” and he postulates that this is at the heart of “Lamentation” – but the most remarkable thing about this performance was that the sound was – in a word – emulsified so often, and blended so beautifully, as the splendid new score unfolded before our ears.

The Quintet will be repeated on October 18 in Reynolds Theatre, in company with music by Haydn and Dvorák. See our calendar for details.