The third concert of Ciompi Quartet‘s 50th Anniversary Season featured works that sought to blend, in various ways, the music of the Orient and Western Classical music. Apropos, the concert opened with Claude Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. One of the influences in this landmark composition was Debussy’s fascination with Javanese gamelan music, placing it in the company of the other music on this program.

When the quartet was first performed in 1893, the public and many critics did not know what to make of it. It was called a string quartet, was written for the traditional instrumentation, and it had four movements. But there the resemblance to the traditional string quartet ended. Debussy took the idea of a string quartet and remolded it in his own visionary way. From his early days in the Paris Conservatory, when told he could not use his dissonant harmonies or his unusual scales, he would always assert “why not?”

From the strong opening theme there was a freedom in the music. The theme returned, but altered in instrumentation, in harmonic support, modulating from lyrical expression to driving power. There were passages of prescribed use of rubato where the pulse fluctuated at the performers’ discretion.

Let it be said here that one of the unique gifts of string quartet artists who play together for many years (current personnel for nearly two decades) is an ensemble blend that is accurate in timing, balance and unity of purpose. Eric Pritchard, Hsiao-mei Ku, Jonathan Bagg and Fred Raimi unite their individual expertise and musical sensitivities into one glorious treasure – The Ciompi Quartet.

The second movement of the Debussy string quartet was a pizzicato tour de force, dancing through the air. A lovely melody, which was first heard in the first violin, came and went in each instrument in a variety of modes. With energy and magical rhythm, the music seemed to move effortlessly across its unique soundscape.

The third movement began with a statement that was initiated by the second violin and passed to the viola. It was soft and sweet and dreamy with perhaps a tinge of sadness. It moved to a state of rhapsody as the first violin soared and then passed it back to the viola where it became achingly sad and comforting at the same time. When the full quartet took up the dream in homophonic harmonization, you knew you were privy to something deeply personal and powerfully healing performed by four individuals who know the music as they know each other.

The last movement opened with a warm cello statement and led to new variations of themes already heard. A cyclic reprisal of the previous movements, in reverse order, led the quartet back to its beginning. That such a structural device was disguised within the rich variety of musical expressivity was testimony to Debussy’s fertile imagination and his remarkable skill as a composer. 

Zhou Long is a Pulitzer-prize-winning Chinese American composer. His Poems from Tang, scored for string quartet, was commissioned jointly by the Ciompi, Chester and Shanghai String Quartets and was premiered in the 1995-1996 season. It consists of four movements inspired by the works of four poets of the Tang dynasty, one of the intellectually richest eras in Chinese history. The composer was concerned primarily with a merging of Eastern and Western cultures through music.The model for the piece is an expanded ch’in, an ancient seven-string zither.

The first movement, “Hut Among the Bamboo,” was made up of seemingly random plucked strings, silence, brief harmonic utterings, low humming by the cello with eeriely high harmonics in the upper strings. It conveyed a feeling of space, dissatisfaction, aloneness, and peace.

The second movement, “Old Fisherman,” consisted of episodic patterns, recognizable but different from expected western melodies. The movement ended quietly and gently.

The third movement was “Hearing the Monk Xun Play the Qin.” Here harmonic chords simulated the sounds of bells. Tremolo suggested the moaning of the wind in the pines. At the end of this movement, the sounds seemed to dissolve into the distance.

“Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets” is the closing movement. Just read that title again and imagine what the music was like! As the eight poets become more drunk they become more unruly. They try harder and harder to recite their poetry until eventually, despite themselves, they collapse into silence, but not before eight loud chords, each separated by eight measures of silence, pay tribute to the poets.   

This was an intriguing musical experience. Through a multitude of sounding technics, the Ciompi Quartet delivered an adventure that was atmospheric and meditative, challenging and instructive, refreshing and invigorating.

The concert closed with James Nyoraku Schlefer‘s  Dream Corner scored for shakuhachi, koto, shamisen, voice, two violins, viola and cello. By. In this performance, The Ciompi Quartet was joined by Kyo-Shin-An Arts which is a contemporary music organization dedicated to bringing Japanese instruments to Western Classical music. Schlefer, the composer of Dream Corner, is artistic director of the group and also played the shakuhachi – a bamboo flute. He is one of only a handful of non-Japanese artists to have been ranked as a grand master of the instrument. Yoko Reikano Kimura played the shamisen, a 3-string instrument played with a large plectrum called a bachi. Kimura also sang the voice part in Dream Corner. The koto, played by Yumi Kurosawa, is a 23-string instrument with movable bridges allowing for pitch adjustment. The sound of these three instruments was quintessentially Japanese and pleasing to the Western ear as well, especially the enchanting koto glissandos.  

Dream Corner is in 11 sections, portraying elements of two lovers who discover each other only in the corner of the universe where dreams take place. The contrasting and blending of the Eastern and Western instruments made for a magical story-telling, much of it in mystical lyricism. The two songs spaced at strategic intervals were sung in Kimura’s rich contralto voice, free of vibrato and mesmerizing in effect. Kurosawa’s koto sang with a variety of technics, its enchanting and mystical quality filling the air with a suggestion of cherry blossoms. Schlefer’s virtuosic shakuhachi playing was solid and sensitive. The Ciompi forces were supportive and receptive of the Eastern influences and asserted some Western musical sounds especially in the somewhat jazzy section entitled “Down and Dirty.” There were many unique sonorous effects played by these two outstanding world-class ensembles. It was a truly fascinating concert.