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The music of the Ciompi Quartet

On a recent bright winter day, the members of the Ciompi Quartet gathered at Duke University to play.

Inside the airy concert hall space of Baldwin Auditorium, the quartet started, stopped, and tweaked the way they played. An audio technician sat to the side with a laptop and recording equipment for the session.

Negotiations abounded. Because of coronavirus restrictions, the group played with their masks on. And then there were the discussions with the composers, both in person and over Zoom, on how to best approach their pieces.

The four pieces were by students in Duke’s Music Department. The music was challenging, abstract, moody, with discordant melodies, full of feelings of disconnection and isolation.

The music uncomfortably heightened what was going on in the world. One of the pieces was even called, “Disconnected.”

After one successful “take,” viola player Jonathan Bagg asked, “How did that sound to you, James?” The composer, himself taken aback by the beauty of the quartet’s playing, had to snap back to reality before responding, “That was great. Thank you.”

Despite the challenges of the lockdowns and other pressures, the Ciompi Quartet has a fluidity and consistency that many classical musicians have found difficult to maintain.

When asked after their recording session at Baldwin Auditorium how they are able to maintain this, the group did not have an answer.

But a short documentary from 2013 shows a foundation of intelligence, experience, and artistry.

“We have different backgrounds, we have different personalities, we have different understandings of everything, from Earth to the heaven,” said Hsiao-Mei Ku, second violinist, in the documentary.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re lawyers in a courtroom, making your case as best as you can to convince the other two, against the person who is maybe disagreeing with you,” Bagg said in the documentary.

The current members of the group bring a wide range of experience and interests and skills. Lead violinist Eric Pritchard has been with the group since 1995. Second violinist Ku has been with the group since 1990. Bagg, the most senior member, has been with the quartet since 1986. The newest member is Caroline Stinson, on cello, who joined in 2018 from Julliard School.

Ku gave her first live performance on national television on China when she was 11 years old, and teaches both at Duke and at Guangzhou Xinghai Conservatory. Pritchard has won first prizes at numerous competitions, including the London International String Quartet Competition. Bagg was previously director of Chamber Music at Duke and became chair of the Music Department in 2019, and is Professor of the Practice. Stinson taught at Juilliard School before coming to Duke, and has an interest in premiering works by composers who have never been played. In 2019, Stinson became director of Chamber Music at Duke.

“What ends up happening is usually the best ideas. The ones that work best are the ones that prevail,” Bagg said.

The Ciompi Quartet was launched at Duke by Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi in 1965, who had been brought to Duke by Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans to grow the area’s burgeoning artistic talent. After Ciompi died in 1983, the quartet continued, with various renowned musicians vacating and stepping in to the four positions.

In between teaching and playing in other ensembles, members of the quartet come together to practice, put on recitals, tour and also from time to time, record albums.

To celebrate the quartet’s 50th anniversary in 2015, they performed with jazz musician Nnenna Freelon and held a concert of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for former students, who joined them both as audience members and on the stage.

As a result of the coronavirus, the group has been holding virtual performances along with the rest of Duke. The Ciompi Quartet had a performance on on Nov. 15 of pieces by Mozart, Anton von Webern, and a piece commissioned by the quartet by Duke professor Stephen Jaffe.

The quartet will hold another performance in February.

Watch the documentary on the Ciompi Quartet from 2013, and their performance of Debussy in 2019.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Jonathan Bagg is director of Chamber Music. He is currently chair of the Music Department. Caroline Stinson is director of Chamber Music.