A free concert by the Ciompi Quartet – a concert devoted entirely to new music, and given in competition with a slew of heavy hitters, elsewhere at Duke and in the Triangle – drew a respectable crowd to the Nelson Music Room on the evening of October 15. We use the adjective (“respectable”) advisedly – the place was reasonably full, the audience encompassed a decent swath of ages, and there were enough seniors present to put the damper on any possible thoughts of rioting or disorderly conduct. The venue is not well marked, and at least two newcomers weren’t sure how to find it, but in contrast to a concert the previous night (at the Bible Church, in Chapel Hill), there was no sign of “security” at or near Nelson; presumably the Duke police figured that this concert’s patrons would cause no trouble.

The program contained nothing that was more than 26 years old – which means that some of the folks in attendance might well have heard the premieres (or local premieres) of all of the pieces, if they’d been in the right places at the right times, and a few of ’em hadn’t even been hatched when some of the music was composed. This is a healthy thing, for a few of today’s new scores may become the “classic” music of tomorrow. Duke’s “Encounters: With the Music of Our Time” series knows this and exists to advance “the cause.” And, over time, no regional ensemble has done more to promote new music than the Ciompi Quartet.

The program began with encore presentations of two works. Malcolm Peyton’s String Quartet No. 2 was premiered by the CQ in September 2001. Coming just weeks after 9/11, it was rapturously received; perhaps this was, in part, a statement of the audience’s determination to ensure that our culture endures. The response was warm but more sedate this time. Revisiting substantial new works – and this seven-part score is definitely substantial – is important, for many contemporary pieces cannot be grasped at first hearing. This one commands attention for its musical and emotional content, its structure, the craftsmanship that forged it – and thanks to the committed performance of our stellar quartet. Peyton was present in the audience, and he and the audience were clearly pleased. (A recording is planned.)

The program continued with the second performance this season of Ned Rorem’s nine-part Suite for Solo Cello, After Reading Shakespeare, realized by the CQ’s Fred Raimi with even greater precision and insight than the first time around, on September 4. Hearing it again so closely on the heels of that initial reading by this master cellist was a boon to understanding, and the score’s delights emerged with much greater clarity. This Suite is full of high drama, leavened by short interludes and some lighter moments. And it’s a virtuoso tour-de-force, too – there can be few solo cello works that demand so much of the performer as the duet that is a setting of the stage directions (!) for the entry of Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The texts were again included in the extensively annotated program, and the composer’s magnificent word-painting was even more apparent this time than last month. It was, in many respects, a stunning reading, in all the right senses of that modifier.

György Ligeti’s Sonate for Solo Viola (1991-4) was stunning, too, and stunningly played by Jonathan Bagg. It’s a six-section work, the movements of which are titled or otherwise annotated in four languages. The parts were apparently dedicated to different players, and while there’s a sense of overall cohesion and unity, each is distinct and different. The first one – marked “Hora Lunga; Lento rubato e molto dolente” – seemed on the verge of being out of control, but perhaps that was intentional – a repeat of this tour-de-force in the near future would be most helpful. There can have been no reservations about Bagg’s realization of the remaining sections, which were amazing in their technical polish and emotional depth. Recordings of some of the CQ’s members’ solo performances would be most welcome, and this work (and the aforementioned Rorem score) would be good places to start.

It might have been enough to have ended at this point, for these three compositions demanded much of the players and the audience, too, but the evening continued with the Ciompi Quartet’s first performance of Lee Hyla’s String Quartet No. 4. It will appear again on the ensemble’s next subscription concert (11/19), and it will also be featured on the next “First Course” offering (11/17 – see our calendar for details of both), when the composer will offer remarks. We’ll defer comments till then, since (as we’ve so often said) it is helpful to hear new music more than once, and the close proximity of the repeats makes this possible. For now, it is clearly an intense, often driving work in one large gulp (albeit with a more or less conventional four-movement structure) that offers tremendous contrasts and periodic relief from the prevailing tension. At first hearing, it doesn’t seem to convey a particularly positive message, but its explosions are arresting, Hyla has been embraced by the avant garde (including the Kronos Quartet), and the Ciompi artists threw themselves into the music, so we’ll look forward to getting to know it better next month.