DaPonte String Quartet turns 20

Posted Wednesday, October 5, 2011 in Culture

DaPonte String Quartet turns 20

The DaPonte String Quartet: Dino Liva and Lydia Forbes, violins, Kirsten Monke, viola, and Myles Jordan, cello.

      "A good quartet is like a good conversation among friends

        interacting to each other's ideas." —  Stan Getz

by Paul Kando

BRISTOL MILLS – A gala event was held Sept. 2 at 1812 Farm to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the DaPonte String Quartet. It had everything: a master of ceremonies, hors d’oeuvres, sparkling wine, truffles, even a resolve of recognition by the Maine Senate.

Twenty years ago four young, music-loving guys came to Maine for a summer of roughing it and music-making. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Chamber Music America made it possible for them to extend that summer into a year-round residency for three years. By the end of those three years they had enough devoted fans to form a nonprofit organization, Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet, dedicated to enabling the four musicians and their families to settle in Maine year-round and build their career from here.

They made their debut at Carnegie Hall, and toured regularly. They gave a year-round concert series in Maine. And they made recordings, the newest of which was available for sale at the Gala. Just as importantly, they put down roots and became our friends and neighbors. Over the years, some members have changed and the original all-male group morphed into the present gender-equal quartet: Dino Liva and Lydia Forbes, violins, Kirsten Monke, viola, and Myles Jordan, cello.

How much culture can you squeeze into a couple of hours and leave time for laughter and socializing as well? The 20th birthday concert featured only two works, yet it exposed us all to the riches of music, from Johann Sebastian Bach’s precise Baroque control of motive, harmony and counterpoint to 20th century tonal music practiced by the likes of Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), a 1905 composition by Anton von Webern, is a fine example of 12-note composition, devised by Schoenberg and described by him as a "method of composing with 12 tones which are related only with one another." In other words, all 12 notes are given more or less equal importance and the music avoids being in a key. The technique was influential on composers in the mid-20th century. Langsamer Satz was meant to be part of an entire quartet Webern put aside, never to complete. It is as smooth as Mozart to listen to, yet a truly 20th century work, reminiscent of a likewise tonal work, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), by Shoenberg, one of Webern's teachers.

The second work, Thema und Variationen über die Melodie von Mildred J. Hill (Variations on a Theme by Mildred J. Hill), is by a little known 20th century German composer, Peter Heidrich. The Theme was co-written as “Good Morning To All” in 1893 by the Hill sisters, who set out to write a song for kindergartners. Patty Hill’s lyrics were set to music by her pianist sister Mildred. Patty was principal and Mildred was a teacher at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, an early experiment in modern educational methods honored, along with the Hill sisters, at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Meanwhile the tune, sung as “Happy Birthday to You," became the most popular song in the English language, according to Guinness World Records.

Heidrich’s clever variations are in the styles of J.S. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Volfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, Max Reger, plus a Viennese waltz, film music, jazz, a tango and a Hungarian csárdás. What a treat! Anyone who might have come to this celebration with the idea that chamber music is seriously high brow had to leave with his/her mind seriously changed.

“It’s all jazz,” as the great conductor Leonard Bernstein remarked to vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin. Indeed, to me, the main attraction of the DaPonte Quartet is their message that, like good education, music must be first and foremost fun to perform and listen to. Dino, Lydia, Kirsten and Myles look like they are having fun whenever they perform. Splendid performers, they are also educators. Over the years they taught a new generation of Maine students. They created an annual, total immersion chamber music weekend that talented high-schoolers could attend free of charge, hosted by the Kennedy Learning Center at Camp Kieve. They take their music into the schools every year, underwritten by generous patrons including, for next year, the Davis Family Foundation. One member of the Quartet even conducts a community orchestra made up of children and adults. 

Their presence and their music enriches us all, and their easy-going sense of humor makes it all accessible.

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