The DaPonte String Quartet played one of its more unusual concerts Friday night at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta. Billed as “Voices of Angels,” it included Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, Opus 50, No. 5 (“The Dream”); Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia”; two blues fugues by Earl Stewart; and a definitive performance of George Crumb’s “Black Angels for Electric String Quartet – Thirteen Images from the Dark Land.”

This is the first time I have witnessed a standing ovation for Crumb’s vision of a trip to hell and back, but it was well deserved.

As cellist Myles Jordan observed in opening remarks, when Crumb composed the work in 1970, electric stringed instruments were almost nonexistent. Friday night’s performance made use of the latest designs of electric violin, viola and cello, lent by NS Design of Nobleboro. The difference in acoustic effects was surprising.

“Black Angels” is in three parts – Departure, Absence and Return – each composed of short sections or “images,” which include snippets of musical works about death, shouted and whispered numbers (7 and 13) in Latin, Germanic, oriental and African languages, gongs, mallets and maracas.

The soundscapes of Departure and Absence are primarily dry-bones, shifting sands, insect stridulations. Those of the Return are more liquid, symbolized by crystal goblets played with the bow.

Crumb’s work at first seems about playing with sound and mystical number sequences, but it is actually deeply felt and engages the audience in the composer’s emotions. It has become increasingly popular since its composition during the Vietnam War, and becomes more effective at each repeated hearing.


The DaPonte musicians have given it much loving care and plan to visit the composer in Pennsylvania next month to discuss its authentic performance.

The rest of the program, while not as spectacular, was also well rehearsed and performed, beginning with a string quartet version of the Thompson “Alleluia.” I like the quartet version better than the vocal one, since it makes listening to the composer’s elegant counterpoint that much easier.

It was followed by a delightful Haydn Quartet, the slow movement of which reminded a music publisher of a dream sequence.

Almost as unusual as the Crumb work, in a different way, were the blues fugues by jazz great Stewart, composed in his mind when he was virtually paralyzed with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The works employ a blues scale as the thematic material for a traditional fugue out of the “Elementary Counterpoint” – basically rules on how to imitate Bach. The result is both disconcerting and fascinating.

The concert will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday in the Midcoast Presbyterian Church in Topsham.

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

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.