Jonathan Bagg seems like a modest guy, a little embarrassed to admit that he has groupies. The viola player is one-fourth of the internationally acclaimed Ciompi Quartet, founded over 30 years ago at Duke University by the violin virtuoso Giorgio Ciompi. Every year, the quartet serves as a sure-fire draw for the Summer Festival of Chamber Music organized by the Duke Institute of the Arts. Not that Bagg's groupies are especially rabid; few of the Ciompi's fans have the time or the inclination to hang out backstage for an autograph or camp in sleeping bags for the best tickets. But they still know great music when they hear it, and every year can be counted on to pack an enthusiastic house.
Which is why the latest offering in the chamber music series has the potential to be such a blockbuster. For an evening of "Classical Sax," the violins, viola and cello of the Ciompi will be joined by the tenor, alto and soprano saxophone of another member of Durham's sizable population of world-famous musicians: Branford Marsalis. The Grammy-award-winning saxophonist has a long had interest in classical music, and it was his enthusiasm for a collaborative effort that led the Ciompi Quartet to curate a program featuring jazz-age compositions by Paul Hindemith and Adolf Busch. Because of the relatively small repertoire available for saxophone and string quartet, composer and Duke alumnus Mark Kuss was called on to craft a piece, "Reminiscence," which will have its world premiere at Duke. Rounding out the program is a jazz-influenced quartet for piano and strings by Gabriel Faure.
If the Marsalis/Ciompi evening alone isn't enough to make you dig out your NPR cooler, two additional offerings are set to end the Summer Festival of Chamber Music with a bang. Want a challenge? Then the "Bartok Immersion" is for you. Participate in the rare opportunity to hear all six string quartets by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok performed by the Borromeo String Quartet. The quartet has been touring Japan with this program, which traces the evolution of Bartok's style from his early Romanticism to later tonal complexity, and should arrive in Durham with the pieces brightly polished and ready to go. The festival ends with a collaborative performance of octets for string featuring both the Ciompi Quartet and the Borromeo String Quartet.
Earlier concerts in the Summer Festival of Chamber Music series have sold out, with disappointed late-comers having to scramble for seats. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have that sleeping bag ready, just in case?
"Classical Sax" takes off at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 19, at Reynolds Theater, Bryan Center, Duke University. A crash course in "Bartok Immersion" will be held Sunday, June 22, at 3 p.m. in the Griffith Film Theater, Bryan Center, with pauses (and refreshments!) available between every other piece. "Eight is Great," featuring the Ciompi and Borromeo quartets, starts at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 26 at Reynolds Theater.