Tag Archives: string quartets

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.

A Brave New Work at Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, Abromson Community Education Center
USM Portland
Aug. 20

Thursday night’s concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival at Hannaford Hall was a journey from the drawing room to the music school to the wide world.

The drawing room was represented by a work that Mozart wrote for performance by his friends, the Quartet in A Major, for Flute and Strings, K. 298, a charming piece based on popular tunes of the day, easy enough to be played by gifted amateurs.

It is a thoroughly charming and graceful gift, with the first violin of the typical string quartet replaced by the flute, played by Laura Gilbert.

It raises the question of traditional string quartet make-up. The flute, in the hands of a musician like Gilbert, would seem to offer more versatility and opportunity for contrast and tonal color than another violin, but the combination never caught on. The example of Haydn? The ubiquity of the fiddle? Someone has probably written a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Which brings us to the schoolroom and Debussy, who wrote his Premiere Rhapsody as a test piece for students of the clarinet. Debussy could not approach a five-finger exercise without making it into a musical jewel, and the Rhapsody is no exception.

Clarinet virtuoso Todd Palmer, one of the resident artists at this year’s festival, has arranged the piece for chamber orchestra of flute, harp, violins, viola, cello and bass. It sets off the clarinet solo very well, even though it sometimes sounds more like “La Mer” than an exercise.

Palmer also played a key role in the piece de resistance of the evening, “Ayre,” by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), with the composer in the audience. Palmer played a bass clarinet duet with the French horn, one of the high points of the song cycle.

“Ayre” takes the notion of fusion a step further than other composers, adding the element of historical time to the juxtaposition of musical cultures. The result of combining Renaissance voices with Piazzolla’s Argentinian tango and Sephardic or Arabic styles, is passing strange, but always musical, while conveying moods from tender love to rage. Some of the effective taped backgrounds evoke scenes from the Arab Spring.

The 11-piece band, or orchestra, sounds like a suk on steroids, if readers will pardon the cliche. Everything seems risen from the level of Arabic street musicians to the stage at the Intergalactic Cafe. There is even a “hyper-accordion,” played by Jose Lezcano, that has the power of a reed organ and something of the character of Piazzolla’s beloved bandoneon. (Golijov was brought up in Argentina.)

I’ve saved the best, soprano Ilana Davidson, for last. Her voice is both powerful and melodious, a more rare combination than one might think, and her portrayal of moods in the 11 songs that make up “Ayre” gives the juxtapositions extraordinary power. She also has the vocal elisions of Sephardic and Arabic music down pat, as difficult a feat as singing the ornamentations in Handel.

Golijov shared in the well-deserved standing ovation.

The festival finale, ending in the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op 34, will be on Saturday (Aug. 22) at 7:30 PM.

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

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