Interview: The Ciompi Quartet at Large (Part 1)

by Chris Vitiello on February 10, 2012

The Ciompi Quartet

Wound like a vine through this diverse Duke Performances season is the chamber music tradition of the Ciompi Quartet, a Duke institution dating back to 1965. Its third Duke Performances/Chamber Arts Society concert of the year takes place at Reynolds Theater on February 18, highlighted by the performance of two octets by Enescu and Mendelssohn with the Borromeo String Quartet.

But first, at Perkins Library on February 14, the Ciompi continues its exploration of Haydn and Shostakovich in its free Lunchtime Classics series. We took this as an opportunity to check in with the current standard-bearers of Duke’s venerable string quartet—Hsiao-mei Ku, Eric Pritchard, Fred Raimi, and Jonathan Bagg—who all split their time between local and international performance, education, and advocacy. In Part 1 of our interview, conducted at the Quartet’s rehearsal space in the Biddle Building on February 3, we learned about their upcoming concerts, how they make their idiosyncrasies work together, and the joys and anxieties of chamber music performance.

The Thread: How do you prepare for a collaboration such as the one with the Borromeo String Quartet on February 18?

The Borromeo String Quartet (photo: Eli Akerstein)

Eric Pritchard (violin): The Borromeo will come in a few days before the concert and we’ll put it together. Typically, everybody knows the Mendelssohn octet, so any two professional quartets could do a presentable performance of that, basically, with no rehearsal—if they were really in that much of a squeeze. But the Enescu is a piece that’s not known to us at all. It’s our first time. Fortunately, the Borromeo Quartet has experience with the piece. It’s really, really challenging at every level.

Jonathan Bagg (viola): That piece is going to be a challenge to put together. We have the Borromeo for as long as we could get them down here. But we’re a string quartet, so we spend out lives putting stuff together and accommodating other parts.

EP: It’s a totally ambitious work. Enescu was 20 or something when he wrote it.

JB: An octet concert is very rare. I don’t know if Duke has ever done one. The Enescu octet is probably a piece that no one around here has heard.

You have a premiere coming up in April—a new Donald Wheelock quartet.

Fred Raimi (cello): We don’t know much about it yet. We’ve sort of read it once. We’ve played other pieces by him, though…I think it’s wonderful music.

JB: It’s very exuberant; lots of energy. His style is dissonant but also singing and lyrical. It’s not a jagged and dry kind of music. He came up in the 1950s and 1960s, so he’s always had an aversion to the really acerbic, dry music that was popular at the time.

FR: As far as I know, he was never a serialist. Certainly not in the pieces that we’ve played.

Do you have a group process of beginning a new piece?

EP: It depends on what’s required on an individual level. There are three kinds of pieces, right? There’s the piece that no one’s ever heard before; the piece that we’ve never heard before; and the piece that we’re intimately acquainted with. Sure, we approach all three of those things differently, but not maybe as differently as you might think. You have to be very present to what the challenges are in each of the three situations.

Ciompi Quartet (photo: Jeremy M. Lange)

FR: I think the implication of your question is that the group gets together and discusses the meaning of whatever piece we’re preparing to play. That doesn’t happen with us. If it happens with any string quartet, it’s none that I know of. Maybe some of the new kids do that, but it’s not part of the process.

JB: With a new piece, we have the score out a lot more because we don’t know what’s going on. It’s possible to play a Haydn string quartet that I don’t know without referring to the score that much because I know his style so well. But with a composer you don’t know, you tend to hear things that you don’t quite understand.

At your Lunchtime Classics series, one can learn a lot from your discussions of what you’re playing, especially when some of you have different points of view about it.

FR: We always have differences of opinion.

JB: Everyone has things they care more about than another person. One person is an intonation stickler and another person is a rhythm stickler and another is a phrasing stickler. To be good, we all have to be good at all those things, but someone might decide, “Well, I’ll let that go” and another person might say, “We can’t let that go.”

So who’s the stickler for what here?

FR: I don’t give a shit about intonation, so they always have to tell me to play in tune. [laughter]

JB: We all think we have good rhythm, and we all think that our rhythm is better than the other person’s rhythm. There’s a little bit of that that goes on too. It’s like, “You’re not playing that the right way.” “Well, yes I am. This is how it should go.”

EP: There are all sorts of interesting methods. Is a metronome a proper way to establish rhythm? Or does it impose something that we don’t want to impose? It’s fair to say that, in certain circumstances, each one of us can see the value in consulting a metronome, or actually even playing along with it, but there are some people who would rather spend more time with it and think about that consultation with the beat than others. Somebody’s going to be happy that it’s on; somebody’s going to be unhappy because it’s off. In terms of methodology, we’re constantly having to cope with each other’s idiosyncrasies.

FR: We have a post-doc by the name of Alex Bonus, a very brilliant guy, and one of his main subjects in musicology is the metronome; in particular, the deleterious effect that the metronome has had on performance since its invention.

Do you agree with that?

a metronome (photo: Vincent Quach)

FR: I do, but my colleagues, maybe not so much.

Hsiao-mei Ku (violin): No, I think we all agree. We maybe see things a little bit differently.

JB: You could argue for hours about the metronome. I know people who are great musicians, who have incredible rhythm and flexibility, and they spend a lot of time with the metronome, so what do you do with that? Is the metronome bad? Well, no.

FR: Bonus’ point is that, in general, the metronome has had a bad effect. It’s made people play like machines. There are exceptions.

JB: There are many exceptions.

HK: Maybe we have a lot of impossible stuff in the twentieth century because rhythm and structure totally changed and became really complicated.

EP: Elliott Carter wrote a piece that you’re not really expected to play unless you have a click track in your earphones telling you where the beat is, but a Schumann string quartet might be interpreted differently because people are in metronome land.

FR: I think, with a Schumann quartet, that a click track would be of great value.

HK: Well, we had an experience, the four of us, where we were supposed to play something I’ve forgotten, something very complicated. And we had very little time, so we said “Okay, let’s bring the conductor in.” And with the conductor, just very quickly—boom—we’re onstage. But without, we just couldn’t find each other.

EP: I think there’s a difference between a conductor and a metronome.

JB: Sometimes. [laughter]

HK: Above all, it doesn’t matter what you argue in your studio or in the practice room. The best moment is when you’re onstage. I feel like the more concerts we have, we become better grouped, because no matter what, you listen to each other. You’re just in tune with each other.

How do you switch from regular life to performance mode?

JB: You know, when I was younger, on the day of a concert, I would wake up in the morning feeling terrible. And I’d think, “Great, the most important day and I feel like shit.” But then I noticed that over the course of the day, I’d get more and more alert, and by the evening, I would be in great shape. I realized that my unconscious, or my body, knows that this is an important day. And it’s taking it easy at the beginning because it knows it has to conserve its energy for the end. So I learned not to worry about how I felt in the morning.

Ciompi Quartet

I’ll tell you something, though. Talking at concerts is not something that any of us were trained to do in conservatory. It’s something that we like to do, and it’s more expected by presenters nowadays. People like to hear you talk about a piece. And that can be hard. You’re thinking about what you’re going to say. You prepare something interesting to say, hopefully. And then a second later you’re sitting down to play the piece—that transition is difficult for me.

EP: Yeah, and then you spend the whole time you’re playing thinking about all the things you screwed up in your talk. [laughter] That’s one of the more disconcerting things for me, to have to do those two things at the same time.

HK: Recently we were in China and, the day before at the dinner table, Eric was falling asleep because of jet lag. But the next day, at the concert, everybody was right there.

FR: One’s adrenaline kicks in.

JB: I was wondering about you, Hsiao-mei, because you did a lot of talking. In China, she would stand up and speak for ten minutes.

HK: Well, I was the only one who could communicate.

JB: Was that hard for you?

HK: Because you couldn’t understand what I was saying, it was very easy. [laughter] In English, it’s maybe more difficult.

MONDAY: THE CIOMPI ON TOURING CHINA AND TEACHING MUSIC

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