There was a palpably energetic buzz in the auditorium.  With an audience drawn to celebrity Branford Marsalis, and marc faris’ Mountain Music (2006) as the centerpiece, the Ciompi Quartet with Marsalis performed at Duke University’s Page Auditorium. Featuring works penned by young composers, the concert opened with Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 136, and was followed by String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13 by then eighteen-year old Felix Mendelssohn. The program evolved from the easily discernable form of the classical through the romantic flowering begun by Beethoven in his late string quartets to American music of the twenty-first century.

Mozart was perhaps fifteen at the time of writing of the divertimentos, but his work is deceptively unencumbered. Capturing the nuance of every phrase, the quartet’s attention to detail and the clarity of the passage-work evoked the youthful exuberance of the piece.  Also known for his precocious writing ability, Mendelssohn’s his wide exposure to literature and visual arts is reflected in his early quartet.  And pushing the boundaries of the sonata form, he infused his quartet with the romantic sensibility that would subsequently take hold during the late nineteenth century.  Yet, it was the second half of the program that I eagerly anticipated.

In his program notes, mark faris describes in great detail the intense process of writing. He self-consciously remarks that “…Mountain Music is the result of painstaking revision and tinkering, yet the piece somehow channels those moments of uncluttered thought and emotion….” It is a beautifully constructed work in two movements; faris’ unsentimental writing is filled with complex, dance-like rhythms, angular motion, and soulful lyric material for the saxophone. The gentleness and repose of the first movement set against the edgy atonality are striking in their contrast, mirroring the geological setting which inspired the piece. Marsalis performed the improvisational, narrative style with the artistic aplomb of a classically trained jazz artist; and the Ciompi Quartet members played with requisite precision.  The audience expressed shared appreciation for a stunning performance of an exceptional piece.

“Reminiscence” for quartet and saxophone, by Mark Kuss, was commissioned and premiered by the Ciompi Quartet in June 2003. A ballad-like piece with melodic material that reminds me of Vaughn-Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” it exploits the deep, resonant tone of Marsalis.  In the middle, a tender hymn-like section (perhaps borrowed from an Irish melody) with plaintive saxophone descant provides an emotional center to the piece.

In his book Consilience, E.O. Wilson says “genes keep culture on a leash.” In view of our predisposition for pattern recognition, perhaps this explains my immediate visceral response to Kuss’ work.  When a neighboring concertgoer gasped, “I love that piece,” I understood completely.