Challenging works put on display Thursday night.
Concerts nowadays often take the form of a sandwich – a contemporary work between two more traditional, audience-pleasing ones. For Thursday night’s program, at the Abromson Community Eduction Center at the University of Southern Maine, the Portland Chamber Music Festival served up Aaron Copland as the filling.
Copland, of “Appalachian Spring” fame, is hardly an avant-garde composer, but in his wonderful and fiendishly difficult Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet, he flirts with both jazz and serialism without losing the unmistakeable Copland sound.
The opening, all bouncing theme and octave leaps, sounds a little like Béla Bartók in its syncopation and ever-varying rhythms.
The second section (there are no traditional movements in the work) is vintage Copland, with flowing melodies that sound like folk tunes. These gradually become entangled in the opening theme, turning the music into a running stream rather than a flash flood.
Festival co-founder Jennifer Elowitch has said that she always wanted this piece to be performed at the festival. It takes a tremendous amount of rehearsal time, not to mention world-class virtuosity from all the players. Fortunately, she was able to program it this year in memory of Marc Johnson (1947-2014), cellist with the Vermeer Quartet and a welcome participant in five festivals.
The sextet was brilliantly performed by Todd Palmer on clarinet, Jesse Mills and Frank Huang on violin, Jonathan Bagg on viola, Claire Bryant on cello, and Rieko Aizawa on piano.
Huang and Aizawa returned after intermission with Elowitch on violin, Dov Scheindlin on viola and Brant Taylor on cello, for a moving rendition of Sir Edward Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 84.
This unusual work is not plain white bread either. During and after World War I, Elgar seems to have been pining for symphonies while writiing chamber music. The result is a sextet that sounds like a symphony, or perhaps a piano concerto by Johannes Brahms.
It is a strange work, with a powerful Brahmsian piano part, given a commanding voice by Aizawa. Its commands to cease and desist, however, are ignored by a weird dance tune that never quits.
In its melodic adagio and sweeping orchestral gestures of the finale, it is one of Elgar’s most beautiful works, if a bit wistful. The players were powerful enough to make it actually sound like a symphony.
The program opened with a virtuoso Sonata for Cello and Harpsichord, G.4, by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), impeccably played by Taylor and Peter Sykes on harpsichord. While obviously a display piece, the sonata has much more to recommend it than a study in double stops, repeated notes and runs.
The sonata makes it easy to see why Boccherini was the most popular composer of his day. It is not so easy to understand how even a gifted amateur could play it.
PORTLAND CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
WHERE: Abromson Community Education Center, USM Portland
REVIEWED: Aug. 21