Four On The Floor

What business does a full-time string quartet have at an institution dedicated to research, education, and patient care? "For undergraduates, a university experience should open up all kinds of aesthetic worlds."

Four hundred rapt listeners in Reynolds Auditorium hold their breath. The luminous personalities of the players flicker gradually through the great nexus of sound: the violist hearty and good-natured, the cellist insistent, one violinist passionately partisan, the other calmly engaged.

By turns they adopt one another's attitudes, mimic a turn of phrase, move their bows in tandem, or are off at a tantivy like squirrels round a tree. They could be dancers circling a cobra, jailers surrounding a pretender to the throne, or a forest fire just this side of being under control. But they are the Ciompi String Quartet, and tonight is the first concert of their thirty-seventh season at Duke.

You read the music in their bodies. During Beethoven's Opus 18, #4, in C minor, they share the same air, the four inhaling in tandem at the start of a phrase as if not one of them could breathe independently of the others. There are nods, eye contact, furrowed brows.

First violinist Eric Pritchard, his legs splayed out closest to the audience, articulates with his spine and emotes with his features. In succession, you see bliss, amusement, agony pass over his face as he leans forward, relaxes, falls back. He lifts his eyebrows suggestively and out from his instrument wafts an amorous phrase.

Second violinist Hsiao-Mei Ku, the sole woman on stage, remains less demonstrative, her equanimity an anchor for the Sturm und Drang around her. Her elegant silver-gray gown contrasts with the severe tuxedos of the men. Her expression remains cool, her flourishes restrained. She intervenes, underscores, matches the others at every step, and when at last the violins burst into a duet, her sound intertwines indistinguishably with Pritchard's and lingers in the still air. She has the pellucid smile of da Vinci's La Gioconde.

Jonathan Bagg, the tallest of the four, clasps the viola in his large hands, then unself-consciously caresses it with his cheek. As the music builds, he raises his feet slightly off the floor, holding back. Then suddenly comes a lyrical motive in the viola and he half rises to meet it, coming bodily off the chair for an instant as his instrument evokes an ancient mystery. He settles again.

Cellist Fred Raimi's visage becomes a study in fierce concentration during a marcato passage, like a carving of an ancient samurai guarding the emperor. He gives his great white mane a shake to emphasize an accent, then again, again, relentless. With his pursed lips, he seems to be crooning to his instrument.

"It's like watching four people who are married to each other having a really good discussion," says Marilyn Hartman, the Ciompi's manager and longtime fan.

The Ciompi Quartet was founded on personality. Its origins lie with the virtuoso violinist Giorgio Ciompi, a performer with Arturo Toscanini and other greats, who came to Duke in the early 1960s specifically to start a quartet. These days his eponymous successors play some eighty concerts each year, presenting as many as forty different pieces, each of which must be polished to the appropriate translucence. They rehearse for several hours every weekday during the academic year, holding local benefit concerts for battered women, the U.N.'s anti-land mine project, Meals on Wheels, a synagogue, the Durham School of the Arts.

In its thirty-seven seasons, the quartet has been through six violinists, four violists, and two cellists-always one at a time, always with a smooth transition from player to player, and always keeping the same name. Some say its current configuration, in place for the past six years, may be the best ever. When the latest member, Eric Pritchard, came, "We did not have to start at square one," says his colleague Ku. "We were already at square eight."

Personality continues to drive them, but in a different way, as Pritchard explains. "There's no boss or leader. One person that feels passionately can often sway three people who are less committed to a point of view." "It's important for the individuals to be allowed to assert themselves," says Bagg. "One mistake some quartets make is that they assume there has to be this uniformity, or they don't feel really polished. If someone's sticking out a bit, they hammer him down so it sounds like a completely organic whole. But I think that's boring. They keep one another from speaking in their own voice."

Raimi shrugs. "The personality of the quartet is the sum and multiplication of the personalities of the four people in it."

Depending on whom you ask, the university is variously their favorite or their most stressful concert venue, or both. Besides the four formal concerts in the series, they might take on another twenty Duke performances at, say, faculty recitals and new-music concerts, in dorms, and at dinners for visiting dignitaries, such as last year's appearance before Canadian Prime Minister Jean ChrÈtien. "They have always been my first choice to embellish a formal evening," says President Nannerl O. Keohane.

"People recognize us as a good ambassador for the university," says Bagg. Besides dozens of concerts around North Carolina-Oriental, Wilmington, and an annual festival in Highlands, for instance-they play regularly in New York, Boston, Washington, and Chicago, and sometimes as far away as England, Bolivia, and the People's Republic of China. They will regale the willing listener with stories of life on the road-groupies who bike from Boston to New Hampshire to catch a performance; driving all night when a NASCAR rally had filled every hotel; Bagg's famous homemade spaghetti sauce. "And when the quartet shares an apartment at a festival," Hsiao-Mei Ku confides conspiratorially, "Eric always looks forward to it because he can barely boil water."

But what business does a full-time string quartet have at an institution dedicated to research, education, and patient care? Most universities other than those with a high-powered music conservatory, after all, have at best a quartet in residence for a week or ten days at a time.

"Most faculty string quartets remain invisible to the rest of the department as they pursue their own concerts and other performing activities," says Scott Lindroth, associate professor in the music department. "The Ciompi Quartet, on the other hand, has always sought opportunities to participate in all aspects of the music curriculum. So, in addition to studio teaching, the performance faculty also contribute to history, theory, and composition courses. Why play a recording of a Mozart quartet when we can have the Ciompi perform the piece for the students in class? And what better way to teach students about composing for the string quartet than to have the Ciompi play their pieces?"

Stephen Jaffe, the Mary and James H. Semans Professor of Composition, concurs. "When our faculty has a composer struggling with string writing, we can send her right across the hall to ask how a passage fits for the viola or the cello," he says. "These kinds of experiences are irreplaceable."

Antony John, of Bournemouth, England, now in his final year of the Ph.D. program in composition, says that if a graduate student writes a piece for string quartet, it's virtually guaranteed that it will be performed and recorded. "We use those recordings to apply for competitions and job applications for university posts," he says. "To have performances that polished by a group that good reflects very well on us. Whenever I go to conferences or speak to composers elsewhere, the first thing they notice is that the best performance I have [of my recorded work] is a string quartet."

On this evening in Reynolds Auditorium, the Ciompi goes on to introduce a world premiere: a quartet they have commissioned from Malcolm Peyton, co-chair of the composition faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. It begins with a lyrical soliloquy in the second violin, so heartbreakingly plangent that it gives rise to the speculation the composer must have been in love with a second violinist. The playing continues flawlessly, the piece reminiscent of the work of American composer Roger Sessions.

"Remaking the canon doesn't mean abandoning wonderfully rich traditions of interpretation," explains Jaffe. "It means adding to them. You don't stop studying Biblical literature or Chaucer because popular attention is more focused on sitcoms. In a department of music, it is appropriate to devote attention to the canon-however it shifts-but also to investigate new kinds of music."

The quartet has commissioned pieces from several Duke graduate students as well as established composers. Last year, with subsidies from the Duke Institute of the Arts and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, they helped make a CD devoted to works of Mark Kuss Ph.D. '95, who has written two quartets with the Ciompi in mind. The CD includes his American Triptych for string quartet and tape. Raimi recalls its most striking movement, "Let's Get a Taco." "The tape was a violent monologue by Harvey Keitel from the Quentin Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs. Mark used the monologue-the rhythms, accents, and pitch of the voice-as a melodic basis for the quartet. We accompany it, we comment on it. It was a fascinating and, I thought, a brilliant thing. Mark is commenting very strongly about the viability of Western classical music today in relation to pop culture. This was beautiful music with a social script."

At each of this and last season's four Duke concerts, they introduced or will introduce a new work, often a premiere they've commissioned. "I always tell the composers there have to be good cello solos," says cellist Raimi, mischievously.

Having studied at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York and with Pablo Casals and other teachers, Raimi has spent the last twenty-seven years at Duke. Like all the members of the Ciompi String Quartet, he holds the position of associate professor of the practice in the department of music-responsible for studio teaching as a half-time gig. "Classical music is not dead at all," he says, "but there are many other things that have come to life at the same time. We're a reputable, established string quartet, and if we don't promote new music, who will?"

Music department professor and chair R. Larry Todd points out that the Ciompi's enthusiasm for new music fits into a well-established tradition. "Take Haydn, who is often thought to embody the classical. He was very mindful of the popular music of his day, often drawing on folk melodies and rhythms. We think of a minuet as a court dance for aristocrats: Haydn would begin his minuets in a courtly style, but not infrequently in the trio [the second section of a minuet] he would use popular music with rustic rhythms. There's been an unfortunate delineation between highbrow and lowbrow. The reality is that the lines were not always distinct."

"The Ciompi don't put bags over their heads and play things that sound like whales giving birth," says Hartman. "Their audience trusts them, and I think it is incumbent on performers who can afford to do it-and the Ciompi can afford to do it-to bring new music to the scene and teach the rest of us how to listen to it."

"Symphonic music draws audiences more easily because of its big scope," says second violinist Hsaio-Mei Ku, who relinquished her position as associate concertmaster with the North Carolina Symphony in 1990 to join Duke's faculty. "But chamber music is like poetry-a poem that has few words. We live in the twenty-first century and we want to speak the poetry of today."

Why, though, would professional musicians of the highest caliber want to live and work so far outside the locus for the arts that a major metropolitan area would provide? "I came to Duke because I wanted to play in a quartet," says Bagg, who is also director of undergraduate studies for the music department. "Quartets have a much more difficult time surviving if they don't have a real appointment that grounds and supports them. Every quartet reaches a point in its career where it has to get some kind of attachment to an institution; even the most famous have a residency. It's just too difficult to make your careers only from traveling and performing concerts.

"A chamber-music audience has to be cultivated and educated. It takes time-maybe ten years-and then you have a good audience who have learned enough to know what to listen for. When I got here in '86, the audience was already very cultivated. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to come."

Pritchard puts it more simply: "My favorite thing about being at Duke is that Duke wants to have me here."

They also love teaching, as seen in Raimi's reflections on the process. "To learn to play a Bach suite is as deep an educational experience as you're going to get because it's not only in the mind, it's in the body. You physically learn to do something complex and large-scale-a twenty- or thirty-minute piece. Learning a major piece of music is as valuable as or more valuable than any individual thing you might do in your college career. To understand the structure of a movement and how it's built, what the high points are, how to interpret individual musical phrases and put them together into a whole, makes the mind work in a very serious way."

Stephen Jaffe sum its up: "For undergraduates, a university experience should open up all kinds of aesthetic worlds-not just scholarship about aesthetics."

The quartet could not have lasted all these years without the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation's support, which is now gradually being reduced as the university tries to pick up more of their budget. In recent years, they have also relied on The Friends of the Ciompi Quartet, donors who direct some or all of their annual Duke contributions to a fund bolstering the group's outreach efforts.

The support of the sixty or so Friends enables not only the commissioning of new repertoire, paying guest artists, and the making of CDs, but also their playing on tour, says Kathy Silbiger, program director for Duke's Institute of the Arts. "Every musical organization loses money when they tour. The Ciompi's presence is a national and community outreach from the university. Real music has to be a living art form: If it's not played and experienced, it will die."

"One of the things that the Duke connection makes possible for them," she says, "is the freedom to be as adventurous as they are. They're not solely subject to market forces. They use that freedom in a very responsible, very idealistic way, achieving a balance between playing works that they love and that they know their traditional audience will love, and just risking it and putting some stuff out there that's untested."

Yet much of the Ciompi's new music is performed first-or only-at Duke precisely because the Duke audience is sophisticated enough to appreciate it, according to Hartman.

Professor Lindroth agrees. "Judging by how many of my colleagues from other departments I see at concerts," he says, "I believe they would regard Duke as impoverished by the absence of the kind of musicianship and artistry offered by the Ciompi Quartet."

Predictably, the performers recognize many people in attendance tonight: string students from throughout the Triangle; administrators, retirees, and library staffers, musiciens manquÈs and wannabes; faculty and grad students from philosophy, history, classics, the sciences.

After an intermission, they launch into Schubert's memorable opus 163, the string quintet in C major, which requires a second cello in the person of guest artist Norman Fischer, flown in from Houston for the occasion. Before they begin, Raimi rises for an impromptu announcement: "We'd like to invite you to a reception immediately following the concert," he says, "so you can meet the musicians-such as they are." The audience titters and Raimi looks pleased.

This kind of offbeat humor and informal relationship with listeners, who know that his self-deprecation masks an intense commitment, is a hallmark of the Ciompi style.

The players agree that audiences differ dramatically, and that Duke audiences are consistently good and critical listeners. Says Bagg, "You develop a following, friends amongst your audience who like to come to your concerts because they know you and have seen you play many times, and they want to see what you come up with this time. If you have a bad night, they forgive you.

"I don't think it's true, though, that it's easier to play at home than away. It's harder because these are people you see in other contexts every day. You feel a certain responsibility to them, that you have to play well because they know your entire history."

Though the group collectively aspires to more national and international exposure, Raimi admits that for him, "Where we play concerts is less important than how we play concerts. I hope the quartet continues to improve as a musical entity, to get more insight into the great composers and play their music better and more beautifully. If we can be there in five years, I'll be happy."

The playing's the thing. Back in his studio on a hot summer afternoon, Eric Pritchard says wistfully, "As hard as you might try in rehearsal, you never get quite that sense of magical communication that exists when an audience is there. You can't ever forget who your audience is and who you're trying to reach."

He turns and looks me in the eye, almost sternly. "Music is a few steps further down the path of abstraction than poetry is. To apply words to it is always a compromise."

He pauses thoughtfully. "My greatest fear," he says, looking away, "is that I'll bore people."

No chance.

Baerman M.B.A. '90, an oboist, is special assistant to Duke's president.

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