Out & About: Portland Chamber Music Festival features 2 Mainers

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Earlier sunsets and fields aglow with goldenrods signal the beginning of the end of the summer arts and entertainment season. But there’s still plenty of A&E to come, with August highlighted by a pair of very similar annual chamber music festivals in Portland and Damariscotta.

The senior of the two is the Portland Chamber Music Festival, entering its 16th four-concert season Aug. 13. This year’s featured performers include two Mainers at opposite ends of the experience spectrum: Marc Johnson, longtime cellist with the Vermeer String Quartet, and Sophie Davis, a 15-year-old violinist who auditioned to earn her spot on PCMF’s all-professional program.

The Salt Bay ChamberFest, which starts its four-concert season on Aug. 11 in Damariscotta, is only one year junior to PCMF. For her 15th season, artistic director Wilhelmina Smith has chosen a theme titled “Borders, Conflict, Music.”

The New Black Eagle Jazz Band has been a tradition at Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Center in Harrison since 1992. The Black Eagles return Aug. 8.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

As often noted here, most of Maine’s summer arts and entertainment activity takes place outside of Portland, and nearly all of the state’s numerous music festivals are held in smaller coastal communities or inland resort towns. The most notable exception is the Portland Chamber Music Festival. Its home is 500-seat Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.

The four-concert festival is the fulfillment of a dream of co-artistic directors Jennifer Elowitch, a Portland violinist, and Dena Levine, a New York pianist. Each summer Elowitch and Levine invite between a dozen and 15 professional colleagues to play an eclectic program that mixes time-tested favorite pieces with new and cutting-edge works by modern and living composers.

Their colleagues are mostly like themselves, established conservatory-trained professional musicians in the middle of their careers. The vast majority hail from Boston and New York. But sometimes they stray a bit from that mold and stay closer to home.

This year’s program invites two Maine musicians at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, both from the Penobscot Bay region. Best-known is Marc Johnson; for decades he was the cellist with the famed Vermeer String Quartet and he’s a longtime fixture at Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport.

Sophie Davis is a 15-year-old violinist who auditioned for a spot on the PCMF program. Expect to hear a lot from this appealing young high school freshman. She plays with the Odeon Chamber Orchestra, an educational division of Bay Chamber Concerts. She also plays with the Calliope String Quartet, a winner of the Portland String Quartet’s youth competition.

Elowitch notes that Davis’ appearance will mark the first time that a high school student has appeared on her subscription concert series. Davis wowed Elowitch at the audition.

“She was exceptionally well prepared and particularly poised for someone of her age,” Elowitch told me. “We have great confidence in Sophie and everyone is looking forward to working with her.”

One of this year’s featured works is a sextet written by Brandeis University professor Eric Chasalow. The composer is well-known in Boston new music circles – where Elowitch is also particularly active – and will get its world premiere on the festival’s opening night.

Elowitch assures her patrons that Chasalow’s work will appeal to general classical audiences. “It has a lot of light-hearted, jazzy elements,” she commented. “It’s a real intriguing piece that can be enjoyed very much on the first hearing.”

Portland Chamber Music Concerts are slated for 8 p.m. on Aug. 13, 15, 20 and 22 at Hannaford Hall in the Abromson Community Education Center, 88 Bedford St., on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. Call PCMF at 800-320-0257 or visit pcmf.org on the Internet.

Salt Bay ChamberFest

Wilhelmina Smith is a cellist who summered on the Pemaquid Peninsula during her childhood and now lives in Manhattan. In 1995 she returned to her former summertime haunts with a group of professional colleagues under the moniker of Salt Bay ChamberFest, playing a concert series in Barrows Barn, a handsome seasonal performance hall on the property of the Round Top Arts Center in Damariscotta.

Round Top went defunct a couple of years ago, but Smith and her ChamberFest are still going strong – and they’re still performing at Barrows.

ChamberFest is a four-concert series that runs Aug. 11, 14, 18 and 21. In recent years, Smith has been leaning toward more modern selections, and she especially likes art songs and works that employ the spoken word. Soprano Lucy Shelton is a regular Salt Bay performer, and this year’s program includes a piece based on “Howl,” the celebrated 1956 stream-of-consciousness poem that catapulted Allen Ginsberg to national prominence as a leading light of the Beat Generation. (“Howl” was also the centerpiece of a landmark 1957 court case that rejected a federal prosecution for obscenity.)

Conflict in political and cultural arenas is the common theme for 2009. “This year’s festival will focus on how music born in regions of conflict defines and often celebrates our common humanity,” explained Smith. “Our concerts explore the music of 19th-century Western Europe, Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain era, America in the ‘60s, and the Middle East currently.”

Every concert contains at least one mainstream classical work, by composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Cesar Franck, Bedrich Smetana, Gustav Mahler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

All performances take place at 7:30 p.m. in Barrows Barn (former Round Top Arts Center) on Business Route 1 in Damariscotta. Call 522-3749 or visit saltbaychamberfest.org on the Internet.

New Black Eagle Jazz Band

Since 1971 the New Black Eagle Jazz Band has been a fixture on the international music scene, bringing the traditional New Orleans sound to audiences all over the world. Some call this Massachusetts-based ensemble the premier group that plays in the traditional jazz style; the seven members style themselves as “Keepers of the Flame.” They’ve been playing at Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Center since 1992.

Although eschewing slavish note-for-note performances, the Black Eagle musicians are aware of the legacy and influence of legendary Big Easy musicians such as Louis Armstrong, George Lewis, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Paul Barbarin and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Black Eagles’ repertoire also includes a good selection of Duke Ellington and Ragtime.

Catch this performance at 8 p.m. Aug. 8. Deertrees is located on Deertrees Road, about a mile out of Harrison Village. Call 583-6747 or visit deertreestheatre.org on the Internet.

Sidebar Elements

pnms-outabout-080509.jpgPortland Chamber Music Festival opens its 16th season on Aug. 13.