The DaPonte String Quartet spends much of its time traveling a circuit in coastal Maine, presenting an annual series in a handful of towns, and it typically does not begin its Portland series until late fall. But this year, the quartet has a freshly commissioned work, Richard Danielpour’s String Quartet No. 8, “What the Light Was Like,” and although the work will be the centerpiece of its Portland program on Nov. 8, the players were eager to present its world premiere, which they did on Thursday evening at the Maine Jewish Museum.

The work’s subtitle is taken from a poem by Amy Clampitt about the disappearance of a Maine lobsterman, who failed to return on a spring evening. The poem was hardwired into the commission, but Danielpour was asked simply to respond to it, not necessarily to make a vocal setting. That demand seemed right up Danielpour’s street: A prolific composer, born in 1956 and now living in Los Angeles, he has often found inspiration in literary and spiritual texts, and that inspiration has yielded works in a sophisticated but immediately accessible and directly emotional style.

In a pre-concert talk, Danielpour said that he lived with the poem for a while, soaking in its rich naturalistic imagery, while also considering the DaPonte’s sound, by way of the quartet’s recent Beethoven and Mendelssohn recording, “Pathways to Healing” (Centaur). Shortly before he began work, last August, two close friends of the composer’s died, giving the poem’s undercurrent of loss an even stronger resonance.

His response was a darkly introspective, five-movement piece, built of what at first sound like the simplest of materials – unpressured themes, short ascending or descending melodic cells – but which blossom into a full, rich, almost pictorial texture.

Danielpour made the point that his work is not meant as a direct translation of the poem into music, but at its most striking, the piece picks up on Clampitt’s imagery and mood shifts. His second movement, for example, has a playful folkishness that conveys a sense of the countryside and of the absence of time pressure, and his fourth movement is a magnificent blend of anxiety and beauty, with attractive themes girded by, but also contrasted with, an inescapable tension.

You can hear indirect references to other composers, at times. Parts of the opening movement, for example, call to mind Benjamin Britten’s Third Quartet, a work in which Britten contemplates his own death (which took place two weeks after its premiere), and the early pages of the final movement hint briefly at the magnified melancholy that drives Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15, although Danielpour quickly moves elsewhere, brightening his texture and giving the music a measure of hopeful energy, a direction far from Shostakovich’s more dour agenda.

That finale does, however, end with a touch of mystery, captured in a set of pianissimo, descending harmonic glissandi – eerie, sliding sounds, barely audible within the quartet texture, but enough to evoke a palpable sense of wistfulness and loss as the work comes to an end.

The DaPonte players – violinists Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes, violist Kirsten Monke and cellist Myles Jordan – gave the piece an impassioned, focused and beautifully balanced performance. They also made a strong case for Alfred Pochon’s Ballade, a 1936 rarity by a composer who was better known as a violinist in the Flonzaley String Quartet, a legendary, early 20th-century ensemble. Pochon, who was Swiss, wrote in a modern Gallic style – you can hear Debussy and Poulenc peeking through the Ballade’s warm textures – and though the piece was brief and relatively modest, it deserved its revival.

The group closed the concert with Schubert’s String Quartet in G major (Op. 161), a late work, played here with an appealing suppleness, perfectly judged balances and a brisk, clean account of its internal dialogues.

The Danielpour was prefaced by a reading of the Clampitt poem, by Richard Blanco. Other readers will take over for performances elsewhere, this month. When the DaPonte presents the piece again in November, it will share a program with works by Bartók and Beethoven, but without the poetry reading.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: kozinn

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