Out & About: Chamber music festival marks 25 years

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As the calendar flips to August, southern Maine’s performing arts calendar flips to the second half of summer, and there are plenty of things to do, venues to visit and artists to enjoy.

For the past two dozen years the Portland Chamber Music Festival has been a mainstay of our city’s August offerings, presenting a series of four top-tier classical concerts. This year marks the festival’s 25th season, and it’s goodbye for the founding artistic director, Jennifer Elowitch. The festival runs Aug. 9-18.

Another August mainstay is the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ’s annual four-Tuesday series on the mighty instrument in Portland City Hall. This year’s series, the first under the direction of James Kennerley, will open Aug. 7 with guest organist Chelsea Chen.

Vinegar Hill Music Theatre has French singer Annie Royer performing a evening of cabaret tunes on Sunday, including a number made famous by French national chanteuse Edith Piaf.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

Twenty-four years ago this month I was among a sparse handful of audience members attending the inaugural Portland Chamber Music Festival, a four-concert series that was created by violinist Jennifer Elowitch and a musical partner from New York.

At the time, the 29-year-old Elowitch lived in Boston and enjoyed a flourishing career in the Hub’s vibrant classical music scene. But she had been born in Portland and wanted to make a positive impact in her hometown.

As time passed, PCMF audiences grew from that embarrassingly small 1994 turnout to the point where a larger concert hall was needed. And its reputation grew exponentially. Festival concerts are broadcast regionally and nationally on Maine Public Radio, WGBH in Boston and American Public Media’s “Performance Today.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed PCMF concerts all 24 years and plan to attend for the 25th.

Two elements from the inaugural season have not changed. First, Elowitch’s roster of performing artists is drawn from nationally prominent musicians, many of whom are principals or assistant principals with symphony orchestras. Others are prominent pedagogues. Elowitch herself belongs in this latter category; she’s music director of a private school in suburban Boston.

Second, Elowitch’s overarching concept is to present the broadest possible swath of chamber music, ranging from established, centuries-old European standards to contemporary pieces written by living composers. All four concerts include one modern piece, and in many cases the composers are present to introduce their work.

This year marks the last under Elowitch’s directorship. The incoming director is violist Melissa Reardon, a New Yorker who performed with the festival in 2017.

The first concert of 2018 is scheduled for Aug. 9, and the program will open with a piano trio by Franz Joseph Haydn, an 18th-century pioneer of chamber music. Second on the bill is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and Strings. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a prominent 20th-century Italian composer who moved to the U.S. and wrote for Hollywood in the latter years of his life. The evening wraps up with Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, one of the showcase pieces of 19th-century chamber music literature.

Concerts are slated for 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9, 11, 16 and 18 at the Abromson Community Education Center, 88 Bedford St. on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. Call 800-320-0257 or visit PCMF.org.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ

Another big item on the Port City’s annual August cultural calendar is the four-Tuesday concert series presented on the mighty Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, which was installed in Portland City Hall in 1912.

By custom, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, a nonprofit support organization, bring in guest artists for the first three concerts, with the finale reserved for the city’s official municipal organist plus an ensemble of brass players from the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

This year marks the first for municipal organist James Kennerley, the British-born keyboard artist who was named to replace Ray Cornils, who had served three decades in that position. I attended Kennerley’s official debut performance in April and went away astounded by his keyboard skills, the variety of his musical selections and his showmanship. Kennerley is slated to wrap up the series on Aug. 28.

On Aug. 7 the series gets going with guest Chelsea Chen, a New York musician who is known for her diverse repertoire. Chen is a graduate of the Juilliard School and won the 2009 Lili Boulanger Memorial Award and the 2005 Augustana/Reuter National Organ Competition.

Her last concert in Portland featured one work by Johann Sebastian Bach, a piece based on a popular video game as well as a selection of jazz standards by Duke Ellington, Ben Bernie and George Gershwin.

Chen also showcased some of her own work. As a composer, she has expanded the organ repertoire with pieces that are inspired by Asian folk music.

Concerts are slated for 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7, 14, 21 and 28 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800 or visit FOKO.org.

Annie Royer

This Sunday, Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, wraps up its three-show weekend with a Parisian chanteuse singing a program of French and American cabaret tunes.

The artist is Parisian-born Annie Royer, who honed her cabaret act in Boston-area jazz clubs for a decade before touring nationally and internationally. Now living in Florida, Royer and her five-man band, Les Garcons Musettes, will stop in Arundel for a Sunday evening concert.

Vinegar Hill Music Theatre was rebuilt from an 1880s barn. For 18 years it was the Arundel Barn Playhouse. It is currently owned by Tim Harrington, a prominent York County businessman. Current director is Sarah Dearing, who brings two decades of experience in entertainment management to the enterprise.

Royer has been captivating audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with her musical and dramatic talents and her Gallic charm.

Although her vast repertoire includes jazz and Broadway tunes, Royer specializes in songs written or made famous by two French-speaking artists. She’s best known for her interpretations of Edith Piaf, the French torch singer of the mid-20th century, whose passionate songs were largely autobiographical. Piaf, who died in 1963, has been called the “national chanteuse” of France, and she was and remains one of the country’s most celebrated artists.

Royer also performs songs by Jacques Brel, a Belgian singer-songwriter whose heyday followed Piaf’s in the latter half of the 20th century.

Catch Annie Royer and Les Garcons Musettes at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1) in Arundel. Call 985-5552.

Violinist Jennifer Elowitch will be stepping down as artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival after this year’s 25th annual concert series is complete. The festival runs Aug. 9-18.

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