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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: April 7, 2015

Portland Chamber Music Festival & Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival bring 4 days of new music

Written by: Bob Keyes
David Ludwig. Courtesy photo

David Ludwig. Courtesy photo

This is a good week to stay in Portland if you appreciate contemporary music.

The Portland Chamber Music Festival has a concert Thursday at SPACE featuring a new piece by a Philadelphia composer who is inspired by astronomy, and the Portland Conservatory of Music hosts the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival from Friday to Sunday. Several composers living and working in Maine have pieces on the Back Cove program, including festival founder Elliott Schwartz, “The Summer King” composer Daniel Sonenberg and University of Maine professor Beth Wiemann. Schwartz also has a piece on the program at SPACE.

The four days of concerts represent a continuing effort to promote new music, as well as an evolving collaboration among SPACE, the chamber fest and the conservatory.

David Ludwig, who teaches composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, will travel to Portland to hear his “Pale Blue Dot” performed Thursday night at SPACE. Ludwig enjoys observing how people react to his work, and he’s also interested how musicians interpret it.

He plans to address the audience because he believes an audience will pay more attention and perhaps enjoy a piece of music more if they understand its inspiration. And besides, he said, “Beethoven can’t do it. I think it makes a huge difference to an audience if someone can explain their work.”

Ludwig, 42, will tell the SPACE audience that his inspiration was astrophysicist Carl Sagan. In 1990, Sagan asked NASA to turn the Voyager space probe around and focus its camera on the earth from 6 billion miles away. In the resulting image, which has become famously known as “Pale Blue Dot,” Earth shows up as a tiny, shiny speck.

“It’s one of the most poignant photographs we have, and what Sagan wrote about it sums up what I believe in about universality and the importance of tolerance and respect of our place in the world. I was inspired to write this piece out of that whole idea,” he said.

The music has been called “an ode to both the dust and the sunbeam, and our all-too-human impulse to connect with each other and the unknown.”

“Pale Blue Dot” is the first piece on the SPACE program, which is titled “Hear on Earth.” It also includes “Bellagio Variations” by Schwartz and Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major.

Chamber fest artistic director Jennifer Elowitch will perform on violin, along with violinist Gabriela Diaz, violist Russell Wilson and cellist Jennifer Lucht.

While the chamber fest frequently uses the casual setting of SPACE for concerts, its association with Portland Conservatory of Music and its Back Cove festival is new. It makes sense to work together to promote common goals than work independently, Elowitch said.

“Though we’ve been presenting new music as part of our summer concerts for years, the chance to devote our SPACE Gallery concerts to new works has given us the opportunity to explore an even wider range of pieces including multimedia and theatrical works,” she said. “We are lucky here in Portland to be at a moment when opportunities to hear contemporary classical music have grown considerably.”

She noted the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Young American Composers Competition and the Composers Ensemble at the University of Southern Maine as other examples of arts organizations and educators who are working to promote new music in Portland.

Back Cove celebrates the vitality and energy of contemporary music, and features mostly music written by Maine composers, said conservatory director Mark Tipton. It is in its seventh year.

Coordinating efforts means the public has multiple opportunities to hear what Maine composers are thinking about and the issues they explore in their music, he said. The Thursday night SPACE concert kicks off four days of music and lectures, he said. “It just shows the public we’re working together to help champion new works and keep things fresh,” he said.

Schwartz, the dean of Maine composers and professor Emeritus at Bowdoin College, began the festival “as a testament” to health of the new-music scene in Maine.

The weekend festival features two guest composers: Michael Schelle of Butler University and the New England Conservatory’s Howard Frazin. Other composers on the festival lineup include Tipton, Joshua DeScherer, Harold Stover and others.

Ludwig, the Curtis Institute composer, said this is a great time to write music. American conservatories “are swollen with young composers, because they feel absolute freedom to write what they want to write. There are no limits on what we can do. The judgment that used to exist about (new music) being too simple or too complex has changed. The restrictions of the genre have changed. I don’t write this kind of music or that kind of music. I just write music,” he said.

On the other hand, it’s a difficult time economically. It’s critical to find supporters who value and understand the importance of new music, he said. That’s why events like this weekend are important. New music festival represents the best opportunities to reach passionate people who are willing to invest in the future, he said.

Portland Chamber Music Festival – “Hear on Earth”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, social hour begins at 7 p.m.
WHERE: SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15, $13 for students


WHAT: Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15, $12 students and seniors
INFO: 207-775-3356;

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