Campus Community Savors the Return of Live Music

Campus Community Savors the Return of Live Music

Around lunchtime on a recent Wednesday, as students, staff and faculty hustled to class or appointments, a few dozen Duke community members spread out amid the pews of Goodson Chapel to savor the sound of the Ciompi Quartet.

As the four faculty members in the Quartet played selections from composers Carlos Chávez and Silverstre Revueltas, the sound of the quartet’s cello, viola and violins filled the space and felt as warm and illuminating as the sunshine that poured through the windows.

“The thing about live performance is that you can just hear a piece of music and then it’s gone,” said Rossie Clark-Cotton, a concert attendee and a visiting scholar in the Department of Biology. “The immediacy of the platform makes you pay a different level of attention than you would at home, where you can hit pause and do other stuff. It’s great to have the ability to just sit and listen and enjoy a performance, just for an hour.”

The opportunity to enjoy live music is a regular part of life on campus, but during the pandemic, when gatherings of any kind were severely limited and canceled, the music community couldn’t perform for in-person audiences.

But the return of live musical performances – albeit with masks – has been a happy step toward normalcy. And nowhere at Duke is this felt quite as profoundly as it is in the Department of Music, where the live performance of music is central piece of the experience for students and faculty. In fact, the next free Ciompi Quartet lunchtime show is on Dec. 1.

“Everyone was ready for this, everyone wanted to do this, they were missing it,” said Jonathan Bagg, the chair of the Department of Music and the violist for the Ciompi Quartet. “It’s a really important part of the process to play a concert and have people come to hear you. It’s not exactly like a final exam, but it does give a focal point to students’ work.”

Music fans enjoy the Duke Symphony Orchestra's Pops Concert in September. Photo by Hsiao-mei Ku.
Music fans enjoy the Duke Symphony Orchestra's Pops Concert in September. Photo by Hsiao-mei Ku.

When the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, it brought nearly all campus activity, including any live music, to a halt. During the 2020-21 academic year, the Department of Music continued to teach music, but performances were virtual. Many performances were highlighted in the Best of Biddle video series, which continues to provide music fans offerings from Duke’s music community.

“Everybody missed performing, but we were all in the frame of mind where we just needed to make it work,” Bagg said. “Everybody’s head was down and we were focusing on making as good an experience as possible.”

With COVID-19 vaccinations required for students and employees, Duke University leaders felt that live music could be enjoyed safely this fall on campus. Over the Labor Day weekend, the Duke Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Concert was held on the East Campus Quad, marking the department’s first public concert since the pandemic began.

And later that month, the Duke Music Department’s Faculty/Student Gala was the first time the Ciompi Quartet and the Duke Chorale, a student vocal ensemble, were able to perform in front of audiences since the pandemic began.

The Duke Chorale spent the 2020-21 academic year holding rehearsals on Zoom, with the 55 members singing in their bedrooms back home, or dorm rooms on campus. In the fall of 2020, there were a handful of masked, distanced in-person rehearsals with the group members who were still in Durham.

But when the full Duke Chorale returned this fall and was able to rehearse in Bone Hall, a large space in the Biddle Music Building, the overwhelming feelings were of joy and gratitude.

Rodney Wynkoop directs the Duke Chorale at September's Faculty/Student Gala. Photo courtesy of Duke Department of Music.
Rodney Wynkoop directs the Duke Chorale at September's Faculty/Student Gala. Photo courtesy of Duke Department of Music.

“It was the best feeling,” said Katie Lutz, a Duke senior and a soprano in the Duke Chorale. “It wasn’t just fun to sing together, but just to see everybody again and to be able to hear the harmonies and the musicality of what we were doing.”

Rodney Wynkoop, professor of the practice in the Department of Music and the conductor of the Duke Chorale, said the energy from the group’s members has been high all semester long. Each live performance has felt special. But the first performance at September’s gala carried extra significance.

Wynkoop said that after seeing how quickly the pandemic robbed everyone of the chance to hear and perform live music, returning to the stage in front of an audience was an act of healing. So Wynkoop chose the first song was a musical interpretation of Alfred Tennyson’s poem, “There is Sweet Music Here.”

“This is the salve, this is the balm, this is the thing we’ve all been waiting for,” Wynkoop said of that moment. “And it is so sweet.”

For Duke’s Music Department events, visit this calendar.

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