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Duke's Ciompi Quartet challenges itself with an unconventional season 

The flashiest dresser in a buttoned-down business, Awadagin Pratt

Photo by Rob Davidson

The flashiest dresser in a buttoned-down business, Awadagin Pratt

When the Ciompi Quartet steps onstage at Baldwin Auditorium this weekend, their wardrobe, for once, might rival their program.

They'll share the show with pianist Awadagin Pratt, the flashiest dresser in a buttoned-down business. Pinstriped jackets, brightly patterned dress shirts, even T-shirts: He's an unmistakable presence before he plays a note. So will Duke's resident string quartet for nearly 50 years try to match Pratt's style?

"I'll have to call him up and talk to him about that," Ciompi violinist Eric Pritchard says. "For a lot of the concerts, we wear very traditional formal wear. He doesn't. When you have a guest, you can homogenize it, or let him have his distinct look."

To help begin Ciompi's season with Duke Performances, Pratt joins Ciompi for Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. He is the first in a series of special guests. The Amernet String Quartet teams with Ciompi in November, followed by Durham native Nicholas Kitchen and Yeesun Kim, both of the Borromeo String Quartet, in February. Durham-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings the season to a close in April. For the Ciompi, it's a year of notable youth and variety.

Pratt is obstinately unorthodox: A regionally ranked tennis player as a teenager, he didn't pursue music seriously until he was 16. But he set Baltimore's Peabody Institute of Music on its ear by concentrating in piano, violin and conducting—an unprecedented trifecta. In 1992 , he became the first African-American winner of an international instrumental competition, taking the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition at the age of 26. He's since played all the big stages—and Sesame Street.

With dreadlocks flowing down his back, Pratt sported a bright yellow, jaguar-spotted dress jacket with pink floral clusters on the shoulders for a 2009 performance at the White House, alongside violinist Joshua Bell. Sometimes, instead of sitting on a piano bench, Pratt pulls a wooden lamp stand that's about a foot high from his backpack. He has to reach up to the keyboard.

The Ciompi Quartet has never collaborated with Pratt, but he's visited Duke to teach master classes in the past.

"He's got an amazing reputation, and we have a lot of mutual friends," Pritchard says. "It just seemed like a connection that we wanted to make."

Despite their nontraditional guest, the quartet will maintain their tradition of opening the season with a Haydn quartet they've never performed together. He wrote 83 in his lifetime, though less than a dozen are typically played. Pritchard calls this custom "a little gift we've given to ourselves."

This season, they lead with the first of Haydn's "Prussian" quartets for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who played the cello himself.

"The cello does come in first in the first movement, so there's a little bit of a sense that Haydn was giving the King that courtesy at the beginning of the piece," Pritchard explains. "[Cellist] Fred [Raimi] feels a little bit regal."

Audiences have barely a month to wait for the Amernet to visit on Nov. 1, featuring founder Marcia Littley, a native of Greenville, North Carolina. They'll gather on the Baldwin stage to premiere a new octet by composer Carl Schimmel, who finished a doctorate at Duke six years ago.

In February, the Ciompi borrows from the Borromeo, as the husband-and-wife team of Kitchen and Kim return. Pritchard wants to get his hands on Kitchen's new transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major for sextet.

"Nicholas had already made it for quartet, but there were notes in the original organ fugue that he wasn't able to include. When you do polyphonic music, it's quite nice to have individual players playing the different voices in a fugue," he says. "It's easier for an audience to follow the counterpoint that way."

But Ciompi's last show in April might be the most revelatory. The program includes a new work by Duke composer Stephen Jaffe, but Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald also challenged the Ciompi with using the singer Costanzo.

"We asked, 'What on earth are we going to perform?'" Pritchard remembers. "We looked at traditional works for soprano and string quartet. But [Costanzo] was really excited about the three songs by Henri Duparc, which are quite famous in the vocal literature though we didn't know them."

Still, underneath the entrances and exits of guests, the Ciompi's opening concert is about four old friends who love to play music together gathering once again.

"This group has been together since I arrived in 1995," Pritchard says. "For various reasons, we've started spending most of the summer going our separate ways. After we finished a festival in France in May, everybody was doing their own thing.

"It's quite wonderful to get back together again and to renew our great musical connection with freshness after not working together all summer," he continues. "We just understand each other."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Brahms in dreadlocks."

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