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Steve Feeney

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Posted: November 6, 2014

Foot stomping, playful tunes highlighted ‘Handshakes, Songs and Dances’ at SPACE on Wednesday

Written by: Steve Feeney
Photo by Steve Feeney

Photo by Steve Feeney

By holding concerts of contemporary music at SPACE Gallery, a venue known for hosting cutting-edge art of all kinds, the folks from the Portland Chamber Music Festival have taken an important step toward promoting classical music as something that can come from and be about today. On Wednesday night, in the acoustically-friendly downtown hall, they furthered that end while including some playful nods to musical history.

In this occasional series, Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch has not shied away from overt entertainment value but has balanced it with musical substance.

The composers selected represented a generational split, with Massachusetts-born and New Hampshire-raised John Adams the most senior. Now age 67, Adams has been a key figure in American music since he emerged from an early crop of minimalist composers. His mastery was confirmed by the quartet’s performance of his “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” from 1994.

Like many chamber works from the post-modern era, the piece references a combination of formal and informal sources, sometimes in a humorous way. Segments backed by pre-recorded prepared piano were particularly effective, whether suggesting a lurching hoedown or a trance-like exoticism. In the hands of the capable foursome, this work was completely engrossing.

The players for the evening included Charles Dimmick and Gabriela Diaz on violins, Ralph Farris on viola and Jennifer Lucht on cello. Dimmick is the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Diaz teaches violin at Wellesley College while Farris sometimes works with theater and pop music artists. Lucht co-directs a chamber music festival in North Carolina when not recording and concertizing. Traversing some, at times, very challenging musical terrain, they worked together very well and were rewarded with enthusiastic shouts and applause from the near-capacity audience.

“Ramshackle Songs,” a 2009 quartet by 30-something composer Dan Visconti shared a taste for variety with the Adams piece. Diaz took the lead chair for this work’s journey from delicate Impressionism through Gershwin territory to folkish passages that were given a bit of audio-visual flare by vigorous plucking and foot stomping from the foursome. Despite a slight loss of momentum in the middle sections, this work fit well with the generally upbeat tone of the program.

Turning age 30 this year, Scott Ordway was the youngest composer featured. His “Handshakes for String Quartet” from 2010 pays homage to a pantheon of past composers, saying a quick musical hello to their styles before moving off in its own direction. Performed in under 10 minutes, there are few frills in this piece. But the long tones of the movement titled “vii. after Mendelssohn” added a welcome austere moment to the evening’s program.

WHAT: “Handshakes, Songs and Dances,” Portland Chamber Music Festival
WHERE: SPACE Gallery, Portland

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