Out & About: Festivals near seasonal finales

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Two of Maine’s signature music festivals are approaching their seasonal climaxes. In urbane Brunswick, the Bowdoin International Music Festival will wrap up on Aug. 8. This weekend’s offerings include a festival-within-a-festival that’s wholly devoted to contemporary art music.

In bosky Harrison, the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival plans two more concerts. The Aug. 5 program is titled “Classics,” and features all-time favorites, while Aug. 12, titled “Circus,” is full of surprises.

Slaid Cleaves is one of Maine’s most popular singer-songwriters, even two decades after moving to Austin, Texas. Every summer he returns to home turf for a series of concerts; this Friday he’ll be performing at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

Bowdoin International Music Festival

An era is about to end and a torch is about to be passed.

The Bowdoin International Music Festival will soon wrap up its final edition under the directorship of co-founder Lewis Kaplan, a violin virtuoso who is renowned as both pedagogue and performer. After 50 years at the helm, Kaplan is stepping down this summer, and the 2015 festival will be directed by Phillip and David Ying, of the Ying String Quartet.

This year’s 50th anniversary is marked by a feeling of triumphal retrospective, and one facet will be showcased in the upcoming Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, a BIMF sub-unit. Commissioning and performing works by living composers has been a key element of the festival from the get-go, and each summer the final full weekend is entirely devoted to 20th- and 21st-century music.

Several of the works on this year’s Gamper program were commissioned by Kaplan for this festival during its early years. Perhaps the most famous is George Crumb’s “Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965,” a quartet scored for violin, flute, clarinet and piano.

Calling for a number of very unconventional techniques by the four performers, Crumb’s seminal work explores and exploits the varied tone colors of the instruments. I chatted with Kaplan last week about this piece.

“The work was commissioned by us and was world-premiered at Bowdoin in August, 1966,” said Kaplan. Since then it’s been performed hundreds of times and recorded at least twice, a major achievement for a small-format work by a living composer. Crumb himself went on to a distinguished composing career, which included winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“Crumb was a relatively young composer, not particularly well-known then, and I think his name recognition and reputation really took off after that work,” added Kaplan. “It’s one of those works that I believe will be here long after all of us aren’t.”

Kaplan stresses that this final Gamper under his direction is about continuity – retrospectively looking back while joyfully anticipating the future through the work of the festival’s composers-in-residence and composition students.

On Thursday, one of the retrospective works will be “A Garden for RKB,” a quartet written by Elliott Schwartz, the longtime Bowdoin College professor who’s been involved with the festival from its early years. “RKB” denotes the late Bowdoin music professor Robert K. Beckwith, who co-founded the festival with Kaplan. Beckwith was an avid gardener, and Schwartz’s piece, scored for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, was written as a tribute after his death.

Gamper concerts will be held in Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College Campus in Brunswick at 7:30 p.m. July 31, Aug. 2 and Aug. 3. For complete program details, please visit bowdoinfestival.org.

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival

For the two final concerts of the 2014 season at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, director Laurie Kennedy has chosen very different over-arching themes. On Aug. 5, titled “Classics,” the unifying connection is major works in the three most common chamber music formats: string quartet, piano quartet and piano trio.

The composers and works are pillars of the classical pantheon: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“String Quartet in D Major”), Felix Mendelssohn (“Piano Quartet in C Minor”) and Ludwig van Beethoven (“Piano Trio in E-flat Major”).

The festival’s Aug. 12 finale is titled “Circus,” and a varied repertoire is planned. Five composers are represented, dating from 18th-century Austrian to present-day American. One of the larger pieces is by Sergei Prokofiev, the score to a ballet that depicts the lives of a troupe of traveling circus performers. Another intriguing piece is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “String Sextet.” The composer’s name is little-known to classical music fans, but he’s a hero to aficionados of vintage films: After moving to Hollywood, Korngold penned the scores for some of the best-remembered swashbucklers of the 1930s.

All performances are slated for 7:30 p.m. at Deertrees Theatre, 156 Deertrees Rd., about a mile outside Harrison Village. Call 583-6747 or visit sllmf.org.

Slaid Cleaves

“Close up the honky-tonks. Shut down the open mics. Austin’s Slaid Cleaves returns to show all who attempt the singer-songwriter thing how it’s done.”

Those are the words of music critic Jim Caligiuri, who writes for the Austin (Texas) Chronicle. The occasion for those words of praise was last June’s release party for Slaid Cleaves’ newest CD, “Still Fighting the War.”

June was also the month when Cleaves celebrated his 50th birthday. That’s hard to believe for those of us who remember him only a few decades ago as a promising young singer-songwriter from Berwick who was making quite a mark on the Portland music scene with his band, the Moxie Men.

Cleaves relocated to Austin, the nation’s epicenter of roots and Americana, in the early 1990s, and travels around the world as a troubadour most of the year. Every summer he and wife Karen return to Maine to reconnect with old friends and create new ones.

I plan to be in the audience this Friday when Cleaves gives a concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland. I expect that he’ll mostly perform songs from the latest CD; its title cut is a sensitive and sympathetic musical depiction of an Iraq war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cleaves is a master storyteller, with subject matter ranging from petty and funny to life’s big-ticket tragedies. He’s also got a superb gift for melody, rhythm and harmony – the basics of songwriting – that always underpins each of his creations.

Adds Caligiuri: “More than 20 years into his career, Slaid Cleaves just keeps getting better, more refined and confident. There are few contemporaries that compare. He’s become a master craftsman.”

Catch Slaid Cleaves at 8 p.m. Aug. 1 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Slaid Cleaves is a Maine-born singer-songwriter who lives in Austin, Texas. He returns to home turf every summer for a concert tour, and this Friday he’s performing at One Longfellow Square in Portland.