March 24, 2013

Portland String Quartet receives national acclaim

Recognized for its longevity, the group endures its first change in membership since forming in 1969.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

His colleagues were shocked when Steve Kecskemethy delivered the news. They knew he was in pain. That was obvious at the final concert that he performed with the Portland String Quartet in late 2011.

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The Portland String Quartet, left – Paul Ross, Steve Kecskemethy, Julia Adams and Ronald Lantz – pose at Sabbathday Lake in 1970.

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The same musicians last week, with outgoing first chair Kecskemethy in the foreground, and the quartet’s newest member, Dean Stein, at right.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

SUNDAY'S SPECIAL PERFORMANCE

The Portland String Quartet will receive the 2013 CMAcclaim Award from Chamber Music America during a concert at 2 p.m. Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodfords St., Portland. The Spelaeus String Quartet will also perform. Admission is $22 ($20 for seniors and free for ages 21 and younger). For information, visit larksociety.org.

But when the violinist told them early last year that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was no longer physically able to perform, they couldn't believe it. Tears and hugs followed disbelief.

For the first time since the quartet formed in 1969, the group faced a member change.

And it almost caused the end of the group itself.

"I had intended to be with the quartet all my life," Kecskemethy said recently. "My life has been the quartet. It's been tough to leave them, but everything does come to an end."

On Sunday, Kecskemethy and the three other founding members of the Portland String Quartet -- violinist Ronald Lantz, violist Julia Adams and cellist Paul Ross -- as well as Kecskemethy's replacement, Dean Stein of Harpswell, will stand together at Woodfords Congregation Church in Portland and receive national recognition from Chamber Music America.

The classical music organization will confer its 2013 CMAcclaim Award on the quartet for its "significant impact" in the community. The award recognizes the quartet's longevity and contributions to the cultural well-being of Portland and all of Maine.

The group is unique in part because of its longevity, but mostly because it stayed together for so long without a change in membership, said Margaret Lioi, chief executive officer of Chamber Music America.

Lioi will be in Portland on Sunday to present the award in person. Many times, honorees will travel to New York to receive the award, but given the special relationship that the Portland String Quartet has with its home city, it seemed appropriate to deliver the award in Portland, she said.

"There may be another group who can claim greater longevity without a member change, but I can't think of one -- and I have checked with my colleagues all around the country," Lioi said by phone from New York. "I feel certain that no one else can boast that."

MAKING BEAUTIFUL MUSIC SINCE 1969

The story of the Portland String Quartet is not dissimilar from the story told in the 2012 movie, "A Late Quartet." In the movie, a string quartet faces a crisis when a longtime member announces his departure because of a life-changing illness.

As in the movie, Kecskemethy's departure shook the quartet to its core. But unlike the quartet in the movie, the Portland String Quartet has weathered this crisis with its dignity intact.

The quartet began at the suggestion of Paul Vermel, who was then the conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The year was 1969, and the orchestra decided it needed more exposure across Maine.

Vermel tapped four of its principal musicians -- all just kids barely out of college -- to form a quartet to travel around the state to perform chamber music and spread the good word about the Portland Symphony.

But things were not going well. It was the quartet's first rehearsal backstage at the old City Hall Auditorium, and all Vermel heard were raised voices.

"They were not fighting, but really arguing strongly about various musical aspects. They could not agree about tempo, balance or interpretation," Vermel recalled during a recent phone interview from his home in Illinois.

"There was so much heated discussion and arguing. I left the room and said, 'Oh my god, what are we doing? This is not going to work out.' "

Vermel, of course, was wrong.

Forty-four years later, the Portland String Quartet is still performing, still making beautiful music and still resolving its musical disagreements the same way it did that fateful afternoon all those years ago: Through respectful discourse, trial and error, and hours and hours of rehearsal.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Portland String Quartet's newest member, violinist Dean Stein

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Violist Julia Adams

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Cellist Paul Ross

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Violinist Ron Lantz with former first chair violinist Steve Kecskemethy in the background

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

  


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