Back Bay Contemporary Music Festival celebrates Maine composers, unusual compositions

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PORTLAND — Fans of new music can get their fix this weekend when a group of Maine composers and performers come together for the Back Bay Contemporary Music Festival at Portland Conservatory.

The second annual festival will consist of three free concerts on Saturday and Sunday at the Woodfords Church in Portland and is a celebration of locally created contemporary music.

Unlike most classical music performances, this one will feature works by living composers. In fact, all of the composers will be in attendance for the shows.

“It’s a real testament to the health of the new music scene in Maine,” said composer Elliott Schwartz, Bowdoin New Music Ensemble director. “The truth is, this will only scratch the surface.”

All of the composers are professors, too, at the University of Maine in Orono, Farmington and Augusta; University of Southern Maine; Portland Conservatory; Colby College; Bates College or Bowdoin College.

The works will be a variety of styles, from Romantic pieces, to some atonal works, to modern mixed-genre pieces. Some pieces will be jazz-inspired, some will be more traditional sonatas or chamber works, while others will feature electronic and computer-created sounds.

“There’s a huge variety. There will be something for everyone,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz’s own work, “Round Robin,” will have its world premiere on Saturday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. The Bowdoin New Music Ensemble, a group of Bowdoin seniors who have worked with Schwartz since they were freshman, will perform this genre-bending work.

Schwartz, whose recent works are known for having a keen sense of humor, described the piece as theatrical in nature. It is based on the concept of a round-robin, where performers trade off performing mini-concertos while the rest of the group plays accompaniment.

However, Schwartz took the concept one or two steps further. All of the performers have small toy robins that play Audubon Society-approved bird songs.

“They sound like real robins,” he said.

The performers will also read lines of poetry that mention robins, and Schwartz said that he quotes four songs inspired by robins, including the old barbershop favorite “When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.”

In addition to Schwartz’s work, USM Composer in Residence Dan Sonenberg will have two works performed during the Saturday evening concert, including a solo trumpet sonata called “Invocation,” and six songs from “Broken Morning,” a play by Chiori Miyagawa about death-row inmates, their families, their victims and their prison guards that was premiered in New York in 2003. This will be the first concert performance of all six songs from the play, all of which were composed by Sonenberg.

Beth Wiemann’s work, “Crows Everywhere are Equally Black,” will feature a projected image and stereo sounds, as well as live musicians.

Richard Nelson’s work, “Stillness,” has elements of chance music, in that it features improvising musicians reading from “a very flexible set of instructions and guidelines,” rather than traditional musical scores.

Gia Comolli’s work, “Icons,” for solo violin, will be performed Sunday evening by her husband, Dino Liva, violinist of the DaPonte String Quartet, and was inspired by Greek Orthodox hymnals.

The entire program for the festival is available on the Portland Conservatory’s Web site. Concerts are Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m., and are free. Donations to support the Portland Conservatory will be accepted.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or

Sidebar Elements

Akiva Zamcheck, a senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, and his toy robin practice Elliott Schwartz’s “Round Robin” for the Back Bay Contemporary Music Festival. Schwartz’s work, which will be premiered April 17 at 7:30 p.m., features recorded bird songs and quotations from songs that mention robins. The second annual festival takes place this weekend at the Woodfords Church in Portland. Admission is free.

Composer Elliott Schwartz, left, with the Bowdoin New Music Ensemble. The group will premiere his work, “Round Robin,” at the second annual Back Bay Contemporary Music Festival at Portland Conservatory this weekend.