I heard the celebrated Portland String Quartet in concert at Woodfords Congregational Church on Sept. 30. Founded by conductor Paul Vermel as the Portland Symphony String Quartet in 1967, it became the Portland String Quartet with Stephen Kecskemethy as first violin, Ronald Lantz, second violin, Julia Adams, viola and Paul Ross, cello. An impressive run of nearly 50 years followed, with many concerts, recordings and honors. After the death of Kecskemethy, Dean Stein filled the latter’s place with distinction as first violinist. Patrick Owen became the cellist following the retirement of Paul Ross in 2015, and this year with Owen assuming a position at Interlochen in Michigan, his place was taken by the very talented Andrew Mark. Even with changes with the outside parts, the timbre and quality of the ensemble happily remains unchanged. To these ears, the PSQ plays with the same intensity, incredibly superb musicianship and timbre as it has these many years.

They have embarked on their 51st season as a world class group. Aside from their ability as individual performers, they play with an incredible cohesion. I suspect that each player knows not only his/her own part but also knows how their part fits in with the whole. They listen to each other, know when to bring out their part and when not to.

What can I write about today’s concert that I have not described in previous reviews? They are as great as they have even been. They are keenly aware of the different styles in music written in different times, as their knowledge is reflected in their playing. For example, the string quartet by Joseph Haydn which opened the program was performed with elegance as well as good humor, as befitting a composition from the late 18th century. They shifted gears so to speak when they performed a quartet by Charles Ives. It took a certain amount of “guts” to tackle this piece. One reason (among many others) occurs in the last movement when one tune was played by the first violin in 4/4 meter and yet another tune was played by the cello in ¾ meter at the same time. (Good luck to the 2nd violin and viola who have to shift for themselves.)

As one knowledgeable member of the audience observed referring to Ives, “He was nuts.” If so, he was not the only composer with mental health issues. (Mahler often liked to go to funerals.) Many of Ives’ compositions had to wait for many years before being performed. His 4th symphony had to wait the longest, and one of his piano pieces, (the Concord Sonata) remains a challenge even to the most technically agile pianists to this day.

Following intermission, the sole work performed was the first String Quartet by Johannes Brahms. This work may be labeled as a string quartet but in actuality it is a symphony written for a string quartet. Each part requires a virtuoso performer.

The first movement is as complex as one can find in the string quartet literature. That movement as well as the others was given a brilliant and moving performance.

In the other movements, where eloquence and passion were called for, that is how it was played.

The intonation and attacks were ever razor sharp. (What else would one expect from this group?)

Every major string quartet has a certain sound (timbre) and this one does too. I believe it comes from violinist Lantz and violist Adams and this may be the reason that in nearly 50 years as a unit, even with major changes in the top and bottom, the timbre as well as the quality of the group remains unchanged.

As a thank you to the city of Portland, and to celebrate the winter solstice, on Dec. 21, the group will perform Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” at Mechanics Hall, 519 Congress St., at 5:30 p.m.

All I can say in closing is my heartfelt wish for as many more years of the level of music making you have given in the past to continue indefinitely into the future.

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

Comments are not available on this story.