After an absence of 28 years, the Portland String Quartet appeared in concert in Springvale on the April 18. Performing before a capacity audience at the Historical Museum they performed an eclectic program and demonstrated that they were a musical force that still has to be reckoned with. Dean Stein is now the first violinist (replacing deceased Stephen Kecskemethy) and has violinist Ronald Lantz and violist Julia Adams from the original group. In place of retired cellist Paul Ross, the guest cellist was Phillip Boulanger. (He demonstrated that he could hold his own with his colleagues from the start.)

The musicianship of the quartet has always been outstanding and this concert was no exception.

Their intonation was marvelous throughout, their attacks razor sharp, and the interplay between the voices nothing short of miraculous. In short, they are a virtuoso ensemble.

The first composition performed was Quartet Satz in C minor by Franz Schubert. The piece may be in C minor but there was a delightful “B” theme in major that was reminiscent of the song “Say It With Music” that was composed some one hundred years later! Schubert nearly ended it in major, thought better of it and quickly returned to the original minor key to end the piece.

If the Schubert work was part of the standard quartet literature, the next work performed has not yet achieved that status. Composed by Peter Schick-ele (AKA PDQ Bach) this was no musical insider type of humo-rous fluff. The full title of the work is: String Quartet No. 1 “American Dreams.” It consists of five separate and distinctive movements.

It is not a quartet in the usual sense but rather a suite of diverse musical styles often evoking American musical elements. It frequently grouped the upper strings to give a musical background against which the cello could provide melodic fragments. Another technique was having all the instruments play together in unison with fast moving notes and with unusual accents. There were many diverse styles, e.g. country fiddling, places that evoked Copland’s “Rodeo” as well as jazz. There was one movement that suggested either a Cole Porter or Gershwin tune gone awry with all the instruments playing chorale like in their upper registers. The first and last movements (opening/closing diptych) suggested to this listener the wide open spaces of the American West. It needed a virtuoso group to perform it and that is precisely what transpired. The audience showed their appreciation at its conclusion.

After intermission the sole work performed was the String Quartet in C minor, Opus 59, No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Composed in the middle of his creative life, this was a mature even revolutionary work. It made full use of the resources of the quartet. This was no mere entertainment piece for an aristocrat’s living room but rather a symphonic work for string quartet. But a few years before, the first violin would play a tune and the other instruments would provide “backup.” Among numerous examples of the opposite of this, one could cite places where an idea would start in the viola, then continue in the cello and then continue in the first violin. In short, this was a meeting of equals with no one part more important than another.

Written at the dawn of what is now called the Romantic period, the outward form is still classic but the content anything but. There is a long mysterious introduction in the first movement, the second even has a viola solo, the third movement is labeled a minuet but it is so in name only, and the bubbling fourth movement is a brilliant and dramatic finale. Flowers were given to each of the performers during an earned standing ovation. The next concert at the Museum will feature Venti Cordi on July 31.

— Dr. Gold is a composer/conductor and an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

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