The DaPonte String Quartet has always been first-rate, on an international scale, but it now seems to have reached some kind of pinnacle in every respect, while extending its repertoire into abstract territory.
The May 16 program at the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium was entitled “Short and Sweet.” All of the works were (relatively) short, but not all of them were sweet. All, however, were brilliantly played, in spite of a wide variety of musical styles.
The first half of the program lived up to both parts of the billing, with charming works by Hugo Wolf, George Gershwin and Franz Schubert.
The DaPonte recorded the Wolf “Italian Serenade” many years ago, but this version was fresher and more dramatic, telling the tale of some young men, slightly inebriated, who decide to sing a serenade under the window of a young lady, with ambiguous results.
The Gershwin Lullaby, the only piece he wrote for string quartet, is a tender melody set to a Latin rhythm. With a wide range of dynamics, down to an almost inaudible pianissimo, the quartet emphasized its humor, as the singer tries to put the baby to sleep. It reminded me of a popular children’s book with an unprintable title.
The unfinished Quartettsatz, another example of a composer’s rare venture into the string quartet form, is vintage Schubert, with a wild ride in triplets, rapid key changes, and a thunderstorm along the way. It seems to have been inspired by his song “Der Erlkönig.” (Generally translated “The Elf King”).
The program after intermission was generally not so sweet, beginning with Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, Opus 5, written when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg. It is a series of vignettes, which, while not yet completely 12-tone in character, come very close in terms of dissonance and what I call musical democracy, with no one note more important than any other. As violist Kirsten Monke commented, “(It) changes your concept of time.” It does indeed, rather like an abstract painting by Kandinsky set to music.
Giacomo Puccini’s “Crisantemi,” an elegy for his friend, the former King of Spain, was entirely different, a Romantic aria for four voices in a lush operatic style. He would later use its theme in the opera “Manon Lescaut.”
It was followed by a quartet written by a composer who believed that no one should have written string quartets after Haydn – Igor Stravinsky. His “Concertino” of 1920, described by violinist Lydia Forbes as “acerbic,” Is another sketch for an opera, (“Reynard”) in the form of a miniature violin concerto. It is full of driving rhythms and dance-like marches, reminiscent of the music for “L’histoire du Soldat.”
Strange as it sounds, the “Concertino” was a fine introduction to Ástor Piazzolla’s “Four, for Tango,” written by the master of the New Tango for the Kronos Quartet. Both are dark, ferocious, and compelling. I liked the Piazzolla, with its shrieking violins, better than the Stravinsky. It made one want to catch the next flight to Buenos Aires.
For a revelation of just what the DaPonte can now accomplish, I would strongly advise music lovers to attend one of the remaining concerts in this series.
DaPonte String Quartet – “Short and Sweet”
WHERE: Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library
DATE REVIEWED: May 16
7:30 p.m. May 22, Lincoln Theater, Damariscotta
7:30 p.m. May 23, St. Columba Church, Boothbay Harbor
3 p.m. May 24, Midcoast Presbyterian Church, Topsham