Tag Archives: DaPonte

DaPonte at Top Form in “More for Four”

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
July 11, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Most classical music programs take the form of a sandwich. One “difficult” or contemporary work, squeezed between two audience favorites. The DaPonte String Quartet’s concert Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, was more of the open-face variety, beginning with a devastating “Four for Tango,” by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla—black as midnight in Buenos Aires and twice as dangerous.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dissonance can be carried on the broad shoulders of the tango, without missing a beat. Everything seems normal, including shrieks on the violins that sound like gauchos sharpening their knives. Every good performance of Piazzolla—and this was one of the best—contains a black hole of violence and despair. “Four for Tango” ends in a knife fight. Absolutely gorgeous.

If one needed further evidence that the DaPonte was in its best form, it was given by the next rendition, of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio from the String Quartet No. 1. The long, drawn-out increase in intensity built to an almost unbearable level before an abrupt transition to the tranquility of the opening—all with the same richness of texture that one has come to expect in the better-known orchestral version.

It was followed by a delightful series of musical one-liners, “Microcosms,” by John Heiss, narrated by violinist Lydia Forbes. The short jokes range from major and minor seconds “rubbing together” in “Clustered,” to a crazy waltz in “Stuck” to aleatoric shenanigans in “Free.” How can one dislike a composer who writes a fantasy on Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”? (In the concluding “Homeward Bound”).The audience thoroughly enjoyed it.

Speaking of crazy waltzes, the DaPonte presented another example in a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, as quirky in its own way as the Heiss piece.
It came in the second movement, Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando in B-llat major, which really is a joke, unlike many scherzi, which take themselves seriously. In the midst of persistent and strangely rhythmical motif in repeated notes comes a strange little tune that is the height of vulgarity and very hard to get out of one’s head.

The scherzo is followed by a seriously melodic adagio, with some appealing cello and violin solos, leading suddenly to series of variations on a Russian theme (sounds like our MSM) insisted upon by the sponsor of Opus 59, the Russian ambassador Count Rasumowsky.

The Count certainly got his money’s worth. Every time one expects the ending chords there comes another take on the “Russian” theme, which I believe was actually invented by Beethoven. Just when the audience thinks it can’ t stand another false cadence, the work comes to an abrupt end—in this case leading to a standing ovation.

The program will be repeated on July 13 at 7:00 p.m. in the Burnt Cove Church community center in Stonington and on July 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

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

Awadagin Pratt Graces DaPonte 25th Anniversary

DaPonte String Quartet
25th Anniversary Concert
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
May 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know whose idea it was, but getting pianist Awadagin Pratt to play quintets with the DaPonte String Quartet for its 25th anniversary celebration was a stroke of genius.

A full house at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall was treated to two masterpieces of the genre—the Dvorak Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 81, and the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34.

The DaPonte was its usual energetic and thoughtful self, alternating between Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes at first violin in the Dvorak and the Brahms respectively. Pratt, however, was phenomenal.

He was the first student at Peabody Conservatory to receive diplomas in piano, violin, and conducting, and it shows. There could not be a better partner for any string quartet. He is a virtuoso when needed and an equal partner at other times, with an uncanny ability to blend in, as if the piano were another stringed instrument. Above all, he listens.

Watching him at the keyboard, I thought immediately of Brahms, thinking through a multitude of permutations and dictating his comments from the piano. All that was needed was a cigar for the resemblance to be perfect.

Either one of the quintets could have degenerated into a piano concerto at any time, but Pratt never let that happen, even in the concluding movement of the Brahms, where there is an explosive passage that outshines, in terms of pyrotechnics, most codas in the concerto literature.

The two works on the program are very different.The Dvorak, which began the celebration, is the quintessence of melody, beginning with a ravishing first theme and never letting up. The Dumka was particularly fine, a reverie with fleeting images of past delights, all perfectly characterized.

The Brahms is more thoroughly composed, building on motifs rather than long-limbed songs, but equally effective and even more passionate. If there were balance issues caused by substituting a Steinway grand for a Graf wooden-framed piano (for which the quintet was composed) I could not hear them.

The most exciting section of the Brahms quintet was the Scherzo: Allegro, a tribute to Robert Schumann in the form of a ferocious march with cross-rhythms that could be one of the older composer’s odes to the Davidsbundler.

The concluding movement begins with a dirge-like theme which soon gives way to the triumphant piano part mentioned earlier.
Both performances received well-deserved standing ovations with unexpected cheers and whistles.

Must be something in the air section: In its July concert series, the DaPonte will play Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, recently performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, while the August series will showcase soprano Kate Aldrich (who recently sang at a gala for Opera Maine) performing Dover Beach, featured at another gala for the Portland Chamber Music Festival. For details of these concerts, go to www.daponte.org.

A Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

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

DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

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

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

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

Saving the Best for Last: DaPonte at Walpole

We have a lot of new concert venues in Maine, from the converted cathedral of the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston through Hannaford Hall at USM’s Abromson Community Education Center to the amazing converted swimming pool of Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, where one can still sense the ancient echoes off wet tile walls.

The older places are still the best, though: Deertrees in Harrison, which is like being inside a cello, the Theater at Monmouth, and the Yarmouth Meeting House, where I first noticed the vast difference in sound created by audience size.

The finest acoustics of all, however. are at the Old Walpole Meeting House, where the DaPonte String Quartet made its first recording
. The building was then, as it is now, without heat or electricity, with pews and boxes designed to mortify the flesh of church goers, but the sound was worth the inconveniences.

If only they could have prevailed upon the state police to stop traffic on the highway a quarter-mile distant… there still would have been airplane noise, I suppose.

On Sunday, September 13, at 7:00 p.m. the quartet will play its annual benefit concert to help defray the considerable costs of maintaining the structure, which was built in 1772 and retains nearly all of its original features, including hardware, 24-pane windows– each said to have cost the price of a cow– panelling and the original hand-hewn shingles.

It also has a huge high pulpit with a sounding board, built by local shipwrights and reminiscent of the one in the opening chapter of “Moby Dick.” The pulpit is too small to hold an entire quartet, but perhaps a violin soloist?

The building was not intended for concerts, and the DaPonte teeters on a raised plywood platform opposite the front door, barely large enough to hold four folding chairs, instruments and music stands. The scores are illuminated by battery-powered lights, which have improved over the years, but still cause problems occasionally. Candle-light, which graces the rest of the room, has never seemed strong enough to read music by.

The musical experience, however, is as close as one can come in this era to what listeners must have heard in the chambers for which intimate 18th-Century music was written. It doesn’t matter where one sits. Even in the servants’ gallery the sound is live and vibrant, while closer to the instruments there is still a fine balance.

The quartet generally chooses at least one work written around the time the meeting house was built, in the case of Sunday’s concert, the Mozart Quartet in A Major, K. 464. The program will also include the String Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), and the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1

The Walpole concert is always a fitting close to the Maine summer music season and is usually sold out. Tickets, at $25.00, are available by pre-purchase at Maine Coast Bookstore in Damariscotta, the Walpole Barn in Walpole (Rt. 129), or the Framer’s Gallery in Boothbay (Meadow Mall). To make other arrangements for tickets, please call 563-5471 or e-mail info@oldwalpolemeetinghouse.org. The concert is at 7:00 and the doors open at 6:30.