A new cellist means a new Ciompi Quartet

Caroline Stinson succeeded the retired Frederic Raimi.

Start with scales.

You’re playing the cello, and you want to get used to new players, so you go back to the beginning. And you play scales.

“Scales are something you do your entire life,” says Ciompi Quartet violist Jonathan Bagg. “So it’s kind of like calisthenics. But we weren’t in the habit of doing that as a quartet before Carrie came.”

That would be Caroline Stinson, who in 2018 suceeded the retired Frederic Raimi and became the first new member of the Ciompi since 1995. And being the new member of an established group—the Ciompi is both Duke’s in-residence performing group and a teaching resource—doesn’t mean sitting quietly and learning to fit in. In fact, quite the opposite: It means everybody has to rethink everything.

“It’s a little like a rebirth when you have a new member,” Bagg says. “You’re kind of reinventing yourself.”

And Stinson offered a way in with scales.

“We started last semester, playing scales together,” she says. And while they play, “we think of the blend, the color, the intonation” of the music. The Ciompi has been around since 1965, but now it’s becoming a new Ciompi. “We took it down to the basics again,” she says. “To build this Ciompi Quartet, we’re taking the sound, the tuning, the pacing of the quartet down to the studs.”

Stinson isn’t new to quartet membership. After finishing her graduate degree in Germany, the Canadian-born Stinson found her first job in 2000 with the Cassatt Quartet in New York City. With residencies at various universities and participation in Buffalo in the famous Slee Beethoven Cycle, a recital of all sixteen Beethoven string quartets, “it was a very busy year,” she recalls. “It was cool to be connected to that tradition in the first year of playing in a quartet.”

In 2009, she joined the New York-based Lark Quartet, where she continued learning “the nitty-gritty of showing up for rehearsals every day, practicing six hours a day, doing finances with a group, traveling with a group.” Above all, working with a group. She says the best part of her few months so far with the Ciompi has been the group’s commitment to hearing and understanding each other’s goals for not just a particular piece of music but also for the quartet as a whole. She loves that flexibility, that focus on process.

“The music-making is best if the goal is always our own greater flexibility,” she says. “You’ve got to invest in process. That’s how you spend your time. That’s what builds the trust in the ensemble.

“That’s what we’re trying to teach the students, too.”

When the group was looking for Raimi’s successor at cello, it sought someone with an interest in modern music (check) and a commitment to teaching (also check). Stinson has quickly fit in, and that shows in the quartet’s performances.

Since her arrival, “my colleagues in the Ciompi Quartet had been looking for a way to publicly show this transition,” Stinson says, and they’ve decided on something delightful. During Stinson’s term with the Lark, the group wished to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. The Lark invited the group’s four founding members back, and they commissioned a string octet by Stinson’s husband, composer Andy Waggoner, which the current and founding members of the quartet all played, three decades of history coming together.

Next fall the Ciompi will invite the Lark Quartet to Duke and perform Waggoner’s octet once again. Because Stinson is still finishing her time with Lark, the two groups collectively would be down one cellist. So they’ll invite Lark’s founding cellist, Laura Sewell, to rejoin Lark as Stinson sits in her new chair with the Ciompi. Music created by her husband, played by colleagues old and new: years of history and connection—as though Stinson’s life connections and career trajectory will unite to show off in Durham.

“My colleagues are extremely generous,” she says. “I realize I say this word out loud a lot.”

They say the same. “We now have to become the new Ciompi Quartet, and that challenges us to be our best person, best collaborator, best musician,” Bagg says, “to question things we’ve taken for granted for a long time.

“The end result is very wonderful.”

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