SOUTH BRISTOL — It’s hard to believe, but sometimes things change for the better. The DaPonte String Quartet’s 14th annual benefit concert for the Old Walpole Meeting House on Sunday had the usual full house, the candle-lit Colonial surroundings, the uncomfortable box pews and the intimate, crystal-clear acoustics of former years, but the performances of three familiar works were even better than usual.

I was particularly impressed by the second work on the program, the Ravel Quartet in F Major. I had heard the DaPonte play this inimitable piece several times before, but this was the best rendition by far, as meticulous as the composer himself yet seeming as free as an Impressionist painting, in which structure is also well-hidden.

In a hall where one can hear the rosin jump off a bow, Ravel’s accomplishments in texture became even more impressive, his influences – including Cesar Franck, Debussy, gamelan music and Spanish dance – even more clear, and his transformation of them even more miraculous.

Like the composer, the quartet took the time to make everything right. The long retuning after the “Assez vif” pizzicato workout was not only necessary but also served as a welcome interlude between sharply contrasting moods.

The quartet, Ravel’s sole attempt at the genre, may have been written as a “student” exercise, but it reveals the composer fully formed and near the height of his powers.

The program began with one of Haydn’s most delightful confections, the String Quartet Opus 33, No. 3. It is nicknamed “Bird” for good reason. Without any direct imitation of birdsong – at least of any specific ones that I could name – its inspiration through all four movements seems derived almost entirely from that source and from the musical imitation of bird-like action. Grace notes and trills abounded, and the final presto was rapid and precise.

The greatest crowd-pleaser of all was the final String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 (“American”) by Dvorak, which today seems the epitome, without any reason at all except the pentatonic scale, of American Indian music. Like the audience, who gave it a standing ovation, the quartet didn’t take the pastiche too seriously, but simply enjoyed the uninterrupted flow of melody and barn-dance images.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]