After a Tumultuous Few Years, the DaPonte String Quartet Plays a Transition

One of Maine’s most renowned chamber-music ensembles is minus one member and pondering its future.

Illustration of DaPonte String Quartet members walking across bridge made of violin scrolls
Illustration by James Steinberg
By Douglas Rooks
From our October 2023 issue

A thin note hangs in the air as the three members of the DaPonte String Quartet lower their bows. In an instant, they take to debating, passionately, how to perform a passage in a Beethoven trio they have already presented twice and will play twice more in the weeks to come. The musicians, among Maine’s most heralded performers of chamber music, are seated in the sanctuary of Freeport’s First Baptist Church, dappled by light falling through stained glass. It’s a familiar space where they have rehearsed for years, a constant during a time when much has felt unfamiliar.

It has been a trying few years for the quartet, whose original members settled in Maine in the mid-’90s after forming in Philadelphia, in 1991. Like all performing ensembles, DaPonte abruptly shut down its concert season when the pandemic arrived. Two years later, just as audiences began returning to live performances, founding member and violinist Ferdinand “Dino” Liva developed severe neuropathy in his hands and feet, leaving him, at least temporarily, unable to hold his instrument, let alone play it. Then, just as the quartet planned a drastically revised season, an even more unexpected blow fell: the ensemble’s nonprofit affiliate, Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet, announced it was terminating its relationship with the four players.

The stunning news was perhaps best conveyed in a letter to the editor by longtime fan and patron David Shipman, of China, published in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville’s Morning Sentinel, in May of 2022. The FDSQ’s executive director had recently emailed donors, Shipman wrote, promising “exciting news” about the DaPonte String Quartet’s 30th-anniversary celebration to be announced in the spring.

“Well, spring is here,” the letter went on, “and the exciting news is that FDSQ is celebrating the quartet’s 30th anniversary by firing them, changing the name of the organization to Chamber Music Maine, and taking the money that the supporters of the quartet donated . . . and proposing to use that money in ways that the donors did not intend.”

Rather than continuing to pay the four musicians their $40,000 salaries, the FDSQ board wanted instead to fund individual performances by a wider range of musicians. The quartet’s players were stunned. When the Portland Press Herald ran a story about their dismissal, it went viral among classical-music devotees. “Within two hours, we were the talk of the Juilliard faculty,” says Myles Jordan, DaPonte’s cellist and other remaining founding member. “By evening, the story was being translated into Hungarian and Japanese.”

In short order, the quartet heard from some top-flight lawyers, two of whom agreed to represent them pro bono. Brief, intense negotiations with the board followed. Two months later, the FDSQ’s entire board and executive director resigned, and the $300,000 treasury (“or almost all of it,” Jordan says) was transferred to the newly formed DaPonte String Quartet Foundation, with Shipman as chair. 

Then, just as the quartet was getting its feet back under itself, the cruelest stroke fell. Shortly after the players’ reinstatement, Liva told the group that he would be unable to return as a performer. He’d had heart surgery, and afterward, his neuropathy did not improve — there seemed no hope, he told his fellow musicians, for him to ever play at a concert level. Heading into 2023, the group’s future had never felt less certain. 

In Philadelphia, where the original DaPonte members gathered at Temple University, Liva remembers the players practicing “six or seven hours a day, every day.” The young ensemble looked up to icons like the Guarneri Quartet, which helped popularize chamber quartets in the 1960s, and the Emerson String Quartet, which formed at Juilliard, in 1976, and had multiple Grammy awards by the early ’90s. “We liked to say, ‘If you want to sound like the Emerson, you have to put in the hours they do,’” Liva recalls. “If you want to sound better, you have to put in more hours.”

The original members of DaPonte — including violist Mark Preston (second from left) and violinist Dean Arthur Stein (right) — rehearse in Damariscotta in 1998.
The original members of DaPonte — including violist Mark Preston (second from left) and violinist Dean Arthur Stein (right) — rehearse in Damariscotta in 1998. Photo courtesy of the Portland Press Herald, via Getty Images

The quartet took its name from Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose name derives from the Italian word for “bridge.” Its first concerts in Philadelphia wowed critics, earning DaPonte favorable comparisons to the long-established quartets they admired. They were too hot for the city to hold them, Jordan jokes. In 1995, they headed to Maine on a three-year residency, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, that involved playing concerts in all 16 counties, often in surprisingly humble venues. A New York Times critic, after hearing the group play in a Newcastle retirement home, wrote that it was “the equivalent of, say, the Boston Celtics playing in the high school gym.” When the residency was over, the group decided to resettle in Maine permanently. 

They’ve been delighting modest but exceptionally loyal audiences ever since. Prior to the pandemic, DaPonte averaged 30 to 35 performances a year, four different seasonal programs, in venues across the state, though primarily along the midcoast. In the early years, they played concerts and festivals outside of Maine, even touring Europe — among the more notable outings was a residency at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Music, in Glasgow, Scotland. Until the pandemic, the quartet hosted what they called the DaPonte Institute in the summer, working intensively with newly formed, college-age ensembles, without charging tuition. Over three decades, few other classical-music organizations in Maine have had as consistent and respected a presence.

That’s why so many were shocked at their brief, turbulent dismissal moment in 2022. Confidentiality agreements prevent all parties from discussing details of the settlement or of conflicts among individuals — as Kirsten Monke, DaPonte’s violist since 2008, repeatedly reminds an animated Jordan when I interview the group at Freeport’s First Baptist. But the experience, they all agree, was traumatic. 

Violinist Lydia Forbes remembers their perplexity at the Friends of DaPonte’s stated desire to expand “its” programming. “There’s a tremendous variety of chamber groups in Maine already,” she says. “It’s not as if there’s a niche there needing to be filled.” The former board, she says, took advantage of a moment when, facing the prolonged absence of Liva, they were particularly vulnerable. For Forbes, who joined the quartet in 2005, “the fact that it went ’round the world and touched a nerve” suggests that the clash was about more than just music. “It’s about the individual and the survival of small things. Things that were meant to be small. It can’t be, ‘Bigger is better, and may your quartet grow into a symphony orchestra.’”

In their dismissal letters, according to Jordan, the members were chastised for their limited repertory, the implication being that DaPonte wasn’t playing enough contemporary music. Jordan says the former executive director told them their concerts didn’t include enough works by women and people of color. The message, he says, was, “No one wants to listen to Beethoven and Schubert anymore,” and that the group needed to broaden its focus beyond the “dead, white, European males” at the foundation of the classical repertory.

But the players defend their track record of new works: Last year, DaPonte was scheduled to record a piece it had premiered in 2018, by Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour, evoking a poem by the late Amy Clampitt and commissioned by Shipman, the new foundation chair. (Liva’s disability forced cancellation of the session.) A 2016 commission showcased a quartet by Dutch American composer Rocco Havelaar, a Mainer and Forbes’s ex-husband. In its Maine Bicentennial program, DaPonte included a rare transcription and arrangement of a Mi’kmaq composition, “Songs of Chief Membertou.”

Moreover, the DaPonte musicians say their former board’s criticism missed the point of why audiences continue to turn out for chamber concerts. Sure, Liva acknowledges, many programs continue to rely on 18th- and 19th-century compositions, but it doesn’t mean they’re not relevant today. Beethoven, he offers, was a politically subversive composer, tweaking the noses of the very aristocrats who commissioned his works. “He was the guy who invented the scherzo, which means ‘joke,’ that now takes the place of minuets,” Liva says. What that meant? “Royalty, the kings and dukes, no longer had something they could dance to.”

The quartet tries to offer similar nuggets of historical context and social relevance for every piece it plays — often presented in idiosyncratic program notes that Jordan riffs from during live introductions. “Something in the world has caused the composer to write that exact piece,” Liva says. “It gives a reason for why we play what we play. It’s not just a bunch of notes that sound pretty — there’s a meaning behind it.”

One might see a mild riposte to the old board in the program that the quartet-minus-one chose for this year’s spring concerts: big chamber works by dead white men Beethoven and Brahms, a string trio and a piano quartet, the latter performed with University of Southern Maine professor Laura Kargul. DaPonte played both pieces shortly after the Freeport church rehearsal, just down the street, at Meetinghouse Arts. Some 120 concertgoers turned out, exceeding, Liva says, the size of pre-pandemic, pre-dismissal audiences.

Liva’s departure, after three decades, is an emotional one.

“That beautiful sound, we’ll miss it, and his presence,” Forbes says. “Dino is a measured person, with a big heart and an understanding about people that’s very valuable in an ensemble like this one.” She and Liva have alternated first- and second-violin parts for 17 years. “Quartets are not just as good as the players’ performances,” she says. “There’s a lot more a member brings to the group.” 

“The relationship between members of a string quartet, of any quartet, is something very difficult to verbalize about,” Jordan says, “because there’s so little verbalization in the process of becoming as one with your colleagues. It comes almost as a surprise that you’ve become part of one another in a very fundamental way.” Jordan and Liva met as Temple University students, and he can feel his friend’s absence as the group plays now. “It’s almost like losing your husband or wife,” he says. “Something’s been amputated.”

More than a year since making his decision, Liva is matter-of-fact about being able to perform again. “Chances are I’ll never be able to return,” he says. He will continue to teach and conduct (among other roles, he is a USM adjunct faculty member and conducts the Portland Youth Junior Orchestra). He draws strength, he says, from the example of his wife, Gia Comolli, a composer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and continues to work at the keyboard, despite the disease’s effects.

He hasn’t left the quartet entirely, however. After creating the DaPonte String Quartet Foundation, the group decided it needed an administrator, and Liva readily accepted the role. His first major task is overseeing the selection of his own successor. Concerts this year have been devoted, in part, to auditioning violinists, one of whom will join a group whose personnel had been unchanged for 15 years. There’s been plenty of interest, some 30 serious inquiries. Several aspirants have joined a month’s worth of rehearsals, followed by performances, and Liva says a decision is expected by year’s end. 

the DaPonte String Quartet of recent years: Cellist Myles Jordan (kneeling, left), violist Kirsten Monke (seated, left), violinist Ferdinand “Dino” Liva, and violinist Lydia Forbes. 
Cellist Myles Jordan (kneeling, left), violist Kirsten Monke (seated, left), violinist Ferdinand “Dino” Liva, and violinist Lydia Forbes. Photo courtesy of DaPonte String Quartet

It’s not a job for everyone. The modest pay means members generally have other incomes, and those with families may have to stretch further. The quartet practices 10 or more hours per week, and rehearsals involve seemingly endless repetition, as well as each member giving candid critiques of one-another’s playing. (Chamber quartets are notorious for spectacular breakups, and DaPonte has not been without its own moments of interpersonal drama — a few years after Forbes joined the group, both she and Jordan divorced their spouses and became romantic partners, as they remain today.)

Once DaPonte is a quartet again, there’s talk of returning to European touring and of playing with guest soloists in new venues. Liva would like to bring back the DaPonte Institute, which he sees as having a unique role in mentoring new talent. “There are plenty of other programs for young string players,” he says, “but most of them are very expensive.”

In general, the prospect of a “new” ensemble has the current members pondering the future in ways they otherwise may not have. “It’s caused me to think about the quartet beyond any of our own involvement,” Forbes says. “The DaPonte Quartet is valuable regardless of who’s in it. It’s special because of its longevity, and also because it’s independent” — that is, unaffiliated with any school or institution.

Jordan, now the group’s last remaining founding member, says he can envision a day when he too steps away. Thirty-two years is time for a lot of changes, which he hears when he listens back to the quartet’s early recordings. “It’s almost sterile in its technical focus,” he says. “Now, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s all about personal expression.” What hasn’t changed, though, going back to the days of playing retirement homes, is DaPonte’s relationship with audiences. “There’s this intimacy that really appeals to people at our concerts,” Forbes says. “They can be so close that everybody feels like they know us. It’s almost a friendship.” 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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