Like its interpretive manner (see The “Romantic” Ciompi Style), the Ciompi Quartet’s programming choices in its early years reflected Giorgio’s own proclivities. The backbone of the ensemble’s repertory at this stage consisted of the canonical string quartet literature: works from the Austro-Germanic tradition by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, and Brahms, along with Debussy and Ravel. To this pool were added some twentieth-century works, predominantly music by Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Ernest Bloch, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Béla Bartók. These selections reflect Giorgio’s own aversion to the most dissonant modern music. In 1979, he told reporter Wendy Zomparelli that he regarded the dissonance of twentieth-century music as a “tremendous crisis” from which music would gradually recover by returning to more traditional musical values and techniques.
Between 1968 and 1983, the many collaborations afforded by the presence of the quartet in an academic environment gradually reshaped its approach to repertoire. The members of the Ciompi Quartet provided live musical demonstrations for lectures by visiting Italian musicologist Mario Fabbri in May 1968 and for an April 1969 academic conference at Duke titled The Eighteenth Century: Between Baroque and Romantic. They collaborated with Duke’s Collegium Musicum on an ambitious concert of “Music of the French Baroque.” They participated in the massive, week-long celebration marking the October 1974 opening of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building on Duke’s East Campus not only by playing Samuel Barbers’ String Quartet but also by accompanying Denis Stevens’ Accademia Monteverdiana in the performance of seventeenth-century madrigals. They contributed a performance of Lutoslawski’s highly dissonant and partially aleatoric String Quartet to an “Evening of Polish Music” presented jointly by Duke’s Department of Music and Department of Slavic Languages. In 1981 and 1982, they worked with music faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to present multi-concert festivals of chamber music by Brahms and Dvořák. And these are just a few of the quartet’s collaborations! The ensemble’s self-conception inevitably was broadened by the sheer variety of these endeavors, which even included some adventures into “early” music—far from typical quartet fare. By 1983, the year of Ciompi’s death, the quartet’s program notes had shifted to reflect this variety: now, they expressly described the Ciompi Quartet as dedicated to playing great music “from all periods.”
This self-conception continued to evolve as the Ciompi Quartet began emphasizing partnerships with living composers. While the quartet did play some contemporary music during its earliest period (1965-83), including the premiere of one piece, Robert Suderburg’s Stevenson (1976), the group’s engagement with such music expanded exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2006, the Ciompi Quartet had given public presentations of music by some forty living composers, including many newly commissioned compositions. As well, the quartet now emphasized long-term promotion of these composers’ music: at least six contemporary composers enjoyed Ciompi performances of more than one work, and many contemporary pieces found their way into the quartet’s permanent repertory. The quartet also demonstrated an interest in contemporary arts more generally through its 1998–2003 collaboration with the Carolina Ballet on presentations of newly-choreographed works to music ranging from Corelli to Beethoven to Philip Glass.
By the early 1990s, newspaper reviews acknowledged the shift toward new music as a central aspect of the Ciompi Quartet’s identity. “The Ciompi Quartet specializes in modern works, especially those of new composers,” wrote Alan R. Hall in his Chapel Hill News review of a February 1993 Ciompi Quartet concert. Carl J. Halperin, reviewing a performance in the Raleigh News & Observer in 1994, summarized the shift in the quartet’s repertory that had occurred over the past decade: the Ciompi Quartet “continues to impress the listener with its dedication to the Classical and Romantic-era masters” while at the same time “moving to the very forefront of the literature” through performances of newly- and recently-composed works.
Such press reviews corresponded, in fact, to another shift in the quartet’s own self-description. For the 1992-93 concert season, program information about the quartet was updated to reflect the ensemble’s new focus: “In addition to their performance of the masterworks of the Classical and Romantic Periods, the Ciompi Quartet has a special interest in commissioning and performing music by contemporary composers.” By the 1995-96 season, these program-note sketches became still more confident: “A strong commitment to new music is reflected in the Quartet’s record of commissions and premieres.” In the years after its charismatic founder’s death, the quartet’s vision and mission had expanded to fill a much-needed role as a champion of living composers.