Dover Quartet Excites in Unusual Program

Dover String Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM-Portland
Dec. 6, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has done it again; brought one of the most exciting new string quartets in the country to Hannaford Hall. Word must be getting around because the intimate venue was considerably more crowded than usual for a brilliantly played program by the Dover String Quartet Thursday night.

I was late and programless for the opening bars and couldn’t quite figure out what I was hearing, as delightful as it was. Janacek? Borodin? Smetana? It was certainly Slavic, melodic in a terse sort of way, without lengthy song lines, yet highly rhythmic, full of violent emotional ups and downs. And very, very long, as if the composer couldn’t figure out how to end it, or didn’t want to.

It was, of course, the Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor (Op. 30), a work that seems more advanced musically than the late Romanticism characteristic of that composer. As played by the Dover, it appeared to be an unfairly neglected masterpiece, not only overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, but also so technically difficult that it is not often programmed.

The Dover Quartet seems capable of mastering anything it essays, with perfect balance, precise enunciation and excitement explosively contained. But then, they’re all Curtis graduates (I’m a prejudiced Philadelphia native), while the spectacular violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, is also an alumna of the Bowdoin International Music Festival. She plays the viola like a tenor version of the first violin, and the result is a new feel in well-known compositions, such as the Dvorak Quartet in A-flat Major, Opus 105, that ended the concert.

The second work on the program was a quirky yet strangely moving musical essay by Mason Bates (b. 1977) called “From Amber Frozen,” which seems to depict the process of emerging from petrified tree sap, which sometimes imprisons insects from a few million years ago. Random notes eventually coalesce into a harmonious whole which then proceeds to disintegrate again like an exploding clock, drawing a few laughs from the audience. It was played ferociously, melodically and with the perfect timing of a good stand-up comedian.

The quartet also had something new to say in its version of an old favorite, Dvorak’s last string quartet, written after he had returned to Prague from his sojourn in America. It is closer to “absolute” music than any of his earlier works in the medium, and contains no recognizable Americanisms nor much Bohemian folk influence,except for the Furiant-like second movement.

The Dover shifted the balance of the piece slightly toward the lower register, which only improved it. I’d like to hear them play Brahms. In the final rousing presto, the viola and cello not only kept up the pace but seemed to be egging things on, resulting in a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland String Quartet Shines in Bartok

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 2, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

As played Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church by the Portland String Quartet, the early Bartok String Quartet No. 1, Opus 7 (1909), was a perfect introduction to that composer’s chamber works—easy to follow, atmospheric, profound and even humorous.

The quartet, with new cellist Andrew Mark, sounded like it must have 50 years ago when it was pioneering the work of American composers such as Walter Piston.

The PSQ sometimes has trouble jumping into the pool, for want of a better simile—easing into the music rather than proclaiming a bold beginning.

That was certainly not the case with the Bartok, which opens with an ethereal violin canon that presents the germ of almost everything that is to come. The minor sixths and seconds are not only pure Bartok, but lend themselves to incredible transformations.

Transformations, that, like Beethoven’s, seem inevitable once they have sounded, beginning as a song of the dawn and ending with raucous fun in a schoolyard. One can hear the taunting children running away as the headmaster’s steps approach. The section is billed as an Hungarian folk dance but it seems a little more like “the rat gets the cheese” or one of the incomprehensibly droll folksongs at the end of “Mikrokosmos.”

This section is in stark corniest to the Romanic intensity of the first movement and the elegance of the allegretto. One critic has called the opening Lento a “projection of the horrors of existence”—it marks a suicidal moment caused by an unfortunate love affair— but that seems as inaudible to a modern ear as the terrors of the Verdi “Requiem.”

The program to me seems like a day at school, beginning with a walk to the schoolhouse through woods and fields, a lesson in fugue while ogling a pretty girl,  and recess; or an illustration of Paul Klee’s theory of the connection between art and music. One is supposed to hear Wagner, Max Reger and Richard Strauss in it, not to mention Debussy, but it is the first of his work to be all Bartok, through and through.

It was followed by the Mozart String Quartet in A Major (K.464), which spotlighted cellist Mark in the drum-like passages that give the quartet its nickname.

After intermission came the great Brahms String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51, No. 2, which also has a fine cello part. It was marred a little by a too-fast allegro in the Minuet, which made it sound like Mendelssohn in “A Midsummer Night;s Dream.” Like the Bartok, the Brahms quartet concentrates nodes of harmony, like the sun shining through clouds. They need to be emphasized somehow, perhaps with a resonance that exceeds what is available in a well-tempered piano chord. It should be possible with a string quartet, but I have never heard it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.