[dropcap letter=”F”]ormed in Philadelphia in 1991, the DaPonte String Quartet came to Maine on a lark, then on a National Endowment for the Arts grant aimed at bringing high culture to the hinterlands. They liked the place so much they’ve stuck around for 20 years. During that time, the world-class quartet has played Carnegie Hall, seen two new members rotate in, and released a handful of widely admired recordings. Their latest, out this month, pairs one of Beethoven’s most renowned late quartets (Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132) with a Mendelssohn work it helped inspire (Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13). When they’re not touring outside Maine, DaPonte brings chamber music to the state’s farther-flung reaches. We caught up with the group after a recent performance in Richmond.
So how did you end up in Maine?
Ferdinand “Dino” Liva (founding member): One of the other original members, his family had a place in South Bristol, and he always had this vision we’d play summer concerts in this nice church there. So we started a concert series — did that every summer, from ’91 to ’93, then went back to Philadelphia. The audience kept growing, and then we got the grant. I had a gig in Virginia at the time, and the other guys said, forget that, come up and play. I thought, “What’s in Maine? How am I going to survive?”
Myles Jordan (founding member): It was a three-year residency, although we commuted quite a bit. We bought a Ford Econoline that ran like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was awful. We were breaking down everywhere.
When did you decide to permanently resettle here?
Liva: When the grant started to run out, there were enough people who were interested, and we were certainly interested in trying to make it here without the residency. It became home. And I have to say that going back to Philly was getting harder. “Oh, we have to go back to Philadelphia? It’s so nice here!”
Jordan: Really the idea was to use Maine instead of New York as a base of operation and to go everywhere. Except we started raising kids.
The notion of bringing chamber music to parts of Maine that don’t often hear it, was this an original part of the mission, or did it evolve later?
Jordan: That was the plan from the inception.
Liva: It’s growing a lot now, to the point where we’re almost too spread out. We’re planning on going further into western Maine and southern Maine.
Kirsten Monke: We just did a tour Down East.
Do you approach a performance differently in a Machias library than, say, in Portland or Damariscotta, in front of longtime patrons?
Monke: In the places we play regularly, Brunswick or Damariscotta, people know us so well — they’ve heard our talks and read our program notes for a long time, so they understand our vocabulary. I think especially when we introduce music, sometimes we have to think, okay, this is an audience that may not know what we’re talking about, so we have to bring the conversation to them a bit more. We’ve been doing these library talks, where we open up our rehearsal and talk about the music and field questions.
Jordan: It’s about communication, just to demystify it, to put a human face on it — because, really, what we’re doing is the most esoteric art form. There aren’t many people who aren’t professional musicians who understand how demanding it is.
Lydia Forbes: One thing that doesn’t change, that’s significantly different about being a member of a string quartet versus, say, an orchestra or other kinds of ensembles, is the hours spent with the other three — which each of us enjoy, or put up with, or celebrate . . .
Liva: . . . or endure . . .
Forbes: . . . and it takes a lot of time to get a string quartet to sound good. It’s not something you can rush through.
The new record is called Pathways to Healing. Where does this idea of healing come from?
Monke: The central movement of the Beethoven piece is incredibly powerful, called “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving.” He was coming off an illness when he wrote it, and it sounds like the windows burst open in the middle of it and the birds are singing and you just feel, ahhh!
Why was it appealing to record?
Monke: It’s one of the greatest pieces that Beethoven wrote. The last quartets of Beethoven are like the bible for a string quartet. Every note has its perfect place, there’s nothing wasted.
Liva: There’s an incredible ingenuity. He’s breaking ground.
Monke: And the movements are massive, but they feel very taut. It just takes you on a trip. You can’t lose interest. You just think, how did I get here?
You’ve played in Maine concert halls, churches, grange halls, libraries. Any favorite venue?
Liva: I love Studzinski Recital Hall at Bowdoin College. It’s all wood, very slightly raised stage — you can hear everything.
Forbes: I’m still dreaming of a place that will be made for us.
Where would that be?
Forbes: Somewhere beautiful and quiet, away from traffic noise, that celebrates the beauty of this state.
Liva: With all our travels, we’d need two — one at the southern end of Maine, one at the northern end.