by Emily Parkhurst
Brunswick, Maine, 6 June 2009. The DaPonte String Quartet has come to be known in Southern Maine as a group willing to take risks with its programming. The DSQ often performs pieces not originally written for the ensemble or chooses to showcase relatively unknown works. It juxtaposes its edgier selections with standards of the repertoire, making every performance at the same time exciting and comforting.
Having undergone several personnel changes recently, the DSQ has struggled some with settling into a coherent sound. Saturday’s performance was no exception. While the individual performers were excellent, the quartet still has work to do before violist Kirsten Monk blends in the organic way cellist Myles Jordan and violinist Ferdinand Liva are able to do. One can only hope that Monk takes a cue from violinist Lydia Forbes, who joined the DSQ in 2005, and has made herself a solid and lovely fixture in the quartet.
The first work on the evening’s program was Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in A, K. 464. Written in 1785, the work was premièred for a small group of freemasons, which explains several of the more rhythmic melodies, meant to invoke the secret Masonic knocks used for entrance into meetings. Watching Forbes perform the 1st violin part was nearly as much fun as listening. She is a performer to see live. Wearing a dress that revealed her extraordinarily muscular arms, Forbes seemed to wrap herself tightly around Mozart’s dense writing, holding each melody close in a warm embrace. She was arresting to see and hear, if for no other reason than that she was so obviously moved by her own inspired performance.
After the Mozart, the group took on the “unique work,” in the words of Mr. Liva, of living British composer Thomas Adès' Arcadiana, Op. 12. In his introductory comments on the piece, Liva explained the theme of death that permeates this 7-movement work. The 4th movement, “Et…” is a “Tango Mortale” or tango of death, while the 6th is titled “Lethe,” another name for the river Styx. “This piece taught me things about the colors and sounds that can be made with the violin,” said Liva before the performance.
Full of extended technique, overtones and harmonics, spiccato bowing and pizzicato, the work flowed through the movements like a museum visitor strolling before the Baroque paintings upon which the work is based. In the small, high-ceilinged chapel, nothing was lost. Organ-like tones filled the hall, followed by what sounded incredibly like distant woodwinds. Then the performers became angelic harpists, plucking together with accuracy and precision. The writing was rich and intense, exhaustingly emotional. In fact, at times, the pizzicatos were so violent as to cause myself, and the woman in front of me, to jump up off our seats. In a larger space, the performance would require such extremes, but in this small church with a small audience, such vigor seemed unnecessary and overwrought. However, given the opportunity (and a short rest), I would love to hear the work performed live again.
The DSQ closed with Debussy’s String Quartet in g, Op. 10, a standard of the repertoire. This was Debussy’s only string quartet and was arguably one of the most magnificent and influential pieces the composer wrote. It was wonderful to finally have the opportunity to hear more from cellist Jordan, whose tone has always reminded me of warm melted chocolate. While the group’s lack of integration was most obvious in this work, the pizzicatos were delightful, and the full chords filled the room in a spectacular way. It was a perfect selection for this venue. Should the group ever decide to record the Adès or the Debussy, the State Street Church chapel would be a fine location.