Visit MaineToday's profile on Pinterest.

About The Author


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.

Send an email | Read more from Bob

Posted: August 7, 2017

Watch musicians make magic at Portland Chamber festival

Written by: Bob Keyes
Jennifer Elowitch, the festival's founder, plans to step down after the 25th edition in 2018. Photos courtesy of Portland Chamber Music Festival

Jennifer Elowitch, the festival’s founder, plans to step down after the 25th edition in 2018.
Photos courtesy of Portland Chamber Music Festival

Jennifer Elowitch used to believe the only thing that mattered at a classical music festival was the quality of the musicians and their performances. She doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Excellent musicianship is still important, but it’s become a given in Maine. All the summer festivals are populated with musicians who are tops in their fields, said Elowitch, founder of the Portland Chamber Music Festival.

“The question isn’t whether quality is the main thing. Of course, it’s essential. It’s step one, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere without it,” she said. “But Maine is now such a mecca for quality festivals, the level of music-making in this state has amazingly risen over the last 25 years or so.”

The Portland Chamber Music Festival begins its 24th season this week with concerts on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and Aug. 17-19 at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Elowitch has invited about 20 of her classical music contemporaries to come to Portland to perform music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Elgar and Brahms, along with contemporary pieces by Mario Davidovsky, Brett Dean and Jessica Meyer, an in-demand composer and performer who comes to the festival this summer in those dual roles.

Also performing will be Maine-based pianists Henry Kramer and Diane Walsh.

As the level of musicianship rises, festivals distinguish themselves with their character and the chemistry that develops among musicians, Elowitch said. It’s about musicians learning to blend together, listening to each other and realizing the vision of the artistic director, who assembles the program with specific musicians in mind in hopes of creating something magical.

“The spark that happens between two or five or 10 people at that moment is what matters,” she said. “If quality is all that matters, then we might as well stay home and listen to perfectly engineered CDs. The reason to come out of your house and schlep over to the hall – to turn off Netflix and not be cozy on the couch and pay the money to come out – is because something special happens at each festival and each performance that is different.”


The 24th fesitival will include work by violist and composer Jessica Meyer.

The 24th fesitival will include work by violist and composer Jessica Meyer.

The character of the Portland chamber festival is musical collegiality. Many of the musicians are friends from New York, Boston and elsewhere, and all are familiar with one other. The chance to come to play together is fun and unusual, said Meyer, a violist, whose husband, clarinet player Benjamin Fingland, also is performing at the festival.

“Any festival my husband and I can play together and be featured in the same week is wonderful,” she said. “There are a lot of musicians who are married to one another, and it’s not often they are playing together. There’s just a great group of people coming out.”

In her writing and performing, Meyer crosses musicals genres, mixing classical and electronic music while maintaining a career as a solo performer and member of the musical collective called Counter)induction. She’s been credited for expanding the repertoire for violists with her own writing and her promotion of others’ work. Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote about her in late July, complimenting her “fierce-edged playing.”

As a younger player, Meyer assumed she would play orchestral music as a career and was happy with that decision for a while. “But over time, I realized I would not be happy for that to be my full-time thing.” She craved musical variety and wanted different ways to express herself.

Taking a page from her singer-songwriter friends, she began writing her own music to perform, made a CD and started touring. She’s gotten a lot of attention for working as both a composer and performer. That’s unusual in classical music, though the gap between writers and performers is getting smaller.

“Wonderful magic happens when you get to be part of the creativity, when you get a chance to play what you wrote and know what it means. It’s wonderful,” Meyer said. “The magic of that changes depending on who you are working with, and that is the beauty of collaborating with other people.”

The Portland Chamber Music Festival provides the platform for collaboration. Elowitch tailors the festival to match the talents of the musicians with her interests as a programmer. She doesn’t choose music to fit a theme, instead relying on her instinct as a musician – she is a violinist – about pieces that will work well together, complement one another or create contrasts. She is committed to new music and features a contemporary piece in every concert.

For Thursday’s opening concert, she’s programmed Meyer’s “But Not Until” for viola and cello between a Mozart quintet and a sextet by Dohnanyi.

Elowitch has announced her intention to step down after next year’s 25th-anniversary festival and feels a sense of urgency to say all that she wishes to before her time is up. “It’s such a lucky thing for me to get to show what is in my heart,” she said.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; family concert at 10 a.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 and Aug. 19
WHERE: Hannaford Hall, Abromson Community Center, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $30 in advance, $35 at the door; $105 for festival pass;, (800) 320-0257

Up Next: