December 11, 2012

Maine string quartet regales on a razor's edge

By Christopher Hyde

The DaPonte String Quartet gave its fans an early Christmas present this past weekend with a series of concerts featuring little-known masterpieces – Haydn's "Razor" Quartet in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 2; three pieces by John Adams from "John's Book of Alleged Dances" and, in celebration of his 100th Anniversary, Giusseppe Verdi's only string quartet, in E Minor.



WHERE: Lincoln Theater, Damariscotta

WHEN: Dec. 7

I attended the second concert of the series, at Damariscotta's refurbished Lincoln Theater. The final one was Dec. 9, at Mid-Coast Presbyterian Church in Topsham.

Haydn's Quartet in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 2 ("Razor") got its name from the fact that the composer is said to have traded it for a pair of razors.

Why one of the wealthiest composers of his time would have done such a thing remains a mystery, although the anecdote has Haydn exclaiming to a friend while shaving that he would give his best quartet for a good razor. The friend ran to fetch his best and a legend was born.

It might also be that Haydn was dissatisfied with it. The quartet attempts to be tragic but the composer's good nature keeps breaking through. The conflict between gloom and cheerfulness, and Haydn's own innovations, keep it interesting.

The most striking movement is one that is ordinarily the simplest, a Menuetto Allegretto punctuated by long fermatas, after each of which the theme takes off in a different key. The DaPonte kept the surprises coming.

An equally quirky set of pieces for string quartet, from John Adams "John's Book of Alleged Dances," included "She's So Fine," a cello song for Jeane Jenrenaud, then cellist of the Kronos Quartet, which commissioned the work; "Judah to Ocean," a description of a San Francisco streetcar ride; and "Habanera," a "portrait of an aging Cuban dictator," with some sly references to Fidel Castro.

"Habanera" was played over a recording of complex computer-generated rhythms, a device that worked extremely well.

The featured event of the evening was Giusseppe Verdi's String Quartet in E Minor, written in 1873.

Verdi himself didn't know what to think of it. I think of it as a sketch book into which the composer could pour a flood of ideas, sometimes connected only by the binding. One finds a plethora of melodies in various combinations, as if the composer were experimenting with the best set of voices to present an aria. There are also reflections of orchestral themes from his operas.

The quartet even contains a fugue, as if the composer set out to prove that he could do it. He did, brilliantly.

The pastiche gives lip service to classical form, but in the hands of the DaPonte it was a delight to hear from beginning to end.


Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:


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