Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (born 1929 in Tasmania, where he ran a sporting goods store for a time) endeavors to capture “the core nature of a place” in his music, based primarily on Australian aborigine and Asian-Pacific cultures.

In his String Quartet No. 8 (1969), played Sunday at the Methodist Church in Brunswick by the DaPonte String Quartet, he succeeds admirably, sometimes making the cello, in its lowest, vibratory notes, sound remarkably like a didgeridoo.

Although the music is almost tonal in character, it makes use of a wide range of percussion effects – tapping on the wood of an instrument, snapping a string of the cello against the body, creating a rustling sound by sweeping the bow sideways across the strings.

All of these sounds are evocative of the Asian rice harvest, combined with snippets of rhythmical work songs. The five-movement quartet begins and ends with a tragic “con dolore” initiated by the cello and then, in the final passages, picked up by the other instruments of the quartet in turn.

The sadness of the opening theme at first seems out of place in a harvest song, until one recalls Sculthorpe’s empathy for indigenous people laboring in poverty, too often to support dictators.

Sculthorpe has written 17 string quartets; based on the DaPonte’s moving performance of No. 8, I’d like to hear more, especially those incorporating Balinese Gamelan music. 

The concert began with a charmingly light-hearted reading of Haydn’s “Bird”

Quartet in C Major, Opus 33, No. 3. The quartet doesn’t imitate specific bird songs, as far as I can tell, but offers musical images of pecking, fluttering, soaring, strutting, singing and other characteristic avian antics.

After intermission came the Beethoven String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 127,  which is not only deep but wide and long enough to contain everything but the kitchen sink, including a tarantella and a passage making fun of Maelzel’s metronome.

In the majestic opening bars, I was surprised, as always, by the richness and volume the DaPonte can call forth from four stringed instruments. Every quartet must try its hand at this, the first of the much acclaimed Beethoven late quartets, written when he was deaf. Our Maine quartet can hold its own with any of them.


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