Not your father’s string quartet

Mar 07, 2014
DaPonte String Quartet rehearses with electric instruments and maracas for George Crumb’s “Dark Angels.”

Thomaston — The DaPonte String Quartet will greet spring with Voices of Angels, a program filled with unusual offerings, opening Thursday, March 20, at 7 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist, 200 Main St./Route 1

In addition to Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” an irresistible and perennially youthful four-part choral work arranged for string quartet, and Franz Joseph Haydn’s well-loved “Dream” Quartet, there are two pieces that stand out in the program for differing reasons.

Earl Stewart’s “Blues Fugues” has particular resonance for DaPonte violist Kirsten Monke, who played regularly for Stewart when he was a professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and she was a graduate fellow. Then one day she ran into him in a music store.

“I was surprised to see him terribly crippled,” she said. He told her he had contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome and spent 16 months in the hospital. For five of those months, he was entirely paralyzed, save for his eyelids.

“It was in this state that he conceived his ‘Blues Fugues.’ Inspired by his love of Bach’s Fugues and Inventions, Earl worked out the tunes and their counterpoint in his head, to pass the time, but more importantly, he told me, to keep himself from losing his mind,” said Monke.

The final piece in the program, George Crumb’s “Black Angels for Electric String Quartet: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land,” is a “voyage of the soul” inspired by the Vietnam War. A challenge for any quartet, “Dark Angels” requires the musicians to play not only electric stringed instruments, but also percussion instruments ranging from gongs, mallets, maracas, 14 tuned crystal goblets, glass rods and thimbles to a metal plectra. They also vocalize in six languages, rap knuckles and bows on the instruments, produce tongue clicks and whistle.

DaPonte violinist Ferdinand Liva describes it as a piece that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous: "You should see us working with paper clips, thimbles, and glass rods!" But he noted that the initial temptation to view this score as mere theatrical gimmick is quickly allayed by both its deep content and the secure place it has earned in the standard string quartet repertory since Crumb finished it 44 years ago, almost to the day, on Friday the 13th of March 1970.

The DaPonte String Quartet moved to Maine in 1992 on a rural arts grant from Chamber Music America and the National Endowment for the Arts. DaPonte performs more than 40 concerts a year, from Presque Isle to Ogunquit. Voices of Angels also will be performed Friday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at Damariscotta’s Lincoln Theater; Saturday, March 22, at 7 p.m. at Portland Public Library; and Sunday, March 23, at 3 p.m. at Topsham’s Mid-Coast Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $20, available online at or by calling 529-4555.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or

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