Ferdinand Liva — Dino to his friends — thinks back to those heady days 20 years ago and chuckles.

He was a young man then, with barely a care in the world beyond his violin. He and his three buddies in the DaPonte String Quartet lived together at a summer cottage down in South Bristol.

They were based in Philadelphia at the time, but one of the members had a summer place in Maine. So they came up here to work.

Many times over the years, Liva has recalled that experience as musical boot camp.

“We did seven concerts in seven weeks, each one with all-new repertoire. It was stupid, crazy — and a lot of fun,” he says.

“All we did was eat, practice, eat some more, practice some more, sail a little bit, and practice some more. And play concerts.”

DaPonte has evolved in the two decades since, but its work ethic remains solidly intact. Myles Jordan, the other founding member along with Liva, posits that the quartet is the busiest classical music group in New England.

It’s certainly a Maine institution. Now based full-time in the midcoast, DaPonte performs about 50 concerts a year, including three in the next eight days at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. A new CD is also scheduled to be released this week.

What makes the quartet unique is the fact that the DaPonte rarely repeats itself. Instead of rehearsing for a month and touring with a tightly crafted and well-honed program that repeats at each stop, DaPonte works up a new program and performs it for a small but loyal audience.

“We are playing always for the same 300 people, and we always continually stretch ourselves to prepare, and prepare really well,” says Jordan. “The programs that we do are consistently a mix of great classics — really, the jewels of the string quartet repertoire — and brilliant modern works that were written in the past 50 years or so.”

Over 20 years, the DaPonte has undergone big changes. The quartet went from four men to two men and two women, and the sound has evolved from those changes. Jordan and Liva are originals. Lydia Forbes and Kirsten Monke are relative newcomers.

The four have had their ups and downs, and met many challenges to accommodate change. But they survived, and have become a better quartet for it. Kids have been born, some marriages have held, some not; but their commitment to making music never flagged.

In addition to its regular concerts, the DaPonte offers many educational opportunities for young musicians. The quartet routinely goes into schools, often at their own expense and always at no cost to schools.

But the public concerts remain the hallmark.

GARDEN PARTY

The DaPonte’s willingness to stretch will be in evidence beginning today, when its annual August Chamber Music Festival opens at the botanical gardens in Boothbay. The late-summer garden party continues with concerts on Wednesday and Aug. 29.

Clarinetist Mark Simons will join the DaPonte today for a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” Simons will play in the klezmer style. Also on the program will be Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132.

On Wednesday, pianist and old friend Jon Klibonoff will join for a program that includes music by Ravel, Mozart, Gabriel Faure and Brahms. The final festival concert, on Aug. 29, will feature both Simons and Klibonoff and a program that includes music by Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen.

The eclectic musical make-up of the festival is thanks mostly to Forbes, a violinist. She’s been with the quartet for six years, joining in 2005.

“It was really Lydia’s idea to do a festival that wasn’t all quartet music,” Liva says. “She suggested we mix it up with trios, duos and some solo stuff. It’s a way of branching out from just all the time quartet music to a little more diverse things.”

Particularly noteworthy is the Golijov klezmer piece on today’s program. Golijov, 50, is an Argentinian-born, Grammy Award-winning composer. This summer alone, his music has been programmed widely across Maine, including at Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport and at the Portland Chamber Music Festival.

The other new member of the group is Monke, a violist.

She is the only Maine native in the group, having grown up in Brunswick. She now lives in Harpswell, although her career took her across the country to California. It was there that she was browsing through an online job bank and saw an opening in a string quartet in Maine.

Monke spent 10 years in an all-female quartet in California, and presumed that chapter in her life had closed. But the ad gave her pause. She investigated more, and learned that Forbes, a long-ago musical friend, played in the group. Monke and Forbes, as well as Portland violinist Jennifer Elowitch, played together in their youth-orchestra days in Boston in the early 1980s.

DaPonte offered Monke the chance to come home, and she took it. She is now in her third season with DaPonte.

“I was so settled in Santa Barbara. I thought that was where I was going to end my days,” she says. “But I must say, it feels so good to be back in Maine.”

A DIFFERENT DYNAMIC

With two female members, the DaPonte has changed. Liva believes the women have softened the quartet a bit, at least in rehearsals.

“Our angry language has cleaned up some,” he says, laughing. “When I miss a whole bunch of notes, now I am careful about how I respond to my own mistakes. There’s a little more kindness.”

Jordan agrees. “The rehearsals are more polite, less confrontational and more productive. Lydia is one of the really truly great players, and Kirsten is someone with a fantastic, expressive sound. Together, they have changed how the quartet sounds. Dino and I have changed and adapted a great deal.

“It’s something that has enriched all of us. It gets us all out of our comfort zone.”

This past winter, DaPonte recorded a new CD, due out this week. The disc includes music by Dvorak, Schubert and Webern. It sets the stage for a longer CD, proposed for the Centaur Recordings label. Centaur, which has a worldwide distribution network, has suggested that the DaPonte record the Mendelssohn string quartets. This week’s CD would finance that project, Jordan says.

These past two decades have been an adventure, he admits. Sometimes, during quiet moments of reflection, he is amazed the quartet has lasted. Many orchestras have folded during that time.

But the quartet soldiers on, always ready for something new.

“We are continuing to survive,” Jordan says. “I believe it’s a testament to the community here, as well as our work.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes