in: News & Features

July 7, 2009

Postcard from Maine: Music Culture in the Easternmost U.S.

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Eastport, Maine, where I have a summer home, is the easternmost city in the United States, population year-round about 1,600, and a little more than 2,000 in the summer. Lubec, considerably smaller, is two miles further east but is incorporated as a town. These two major urban centers of Washington County (total population about 33,000, area about 2,600 square miles, more than twice the size of Rhode Island) frame the American reaches of Cobscook Bay, a smaller offshoot from the much larger Passamaquoddy Bay which is mostly Canadian-bordered.

Except for the Fourth of July, when the holiday influx raises the temperature to as many as 10,000 people, Eastport is a quiet, friendly, low-key community with a thriving arts environment. There is a considerable nucleus of painters, sculptors, ceramists, instrument makers, and writers, and some of these also participate in Stage East, a small but very popular theater company. A special international treasure is a newspaper, The Quoddy Tides, published twice a month and serving not only the American communities around Cobscook Bay but also the islands of nearby New Brunswick: Deer Island, Campobello, and Grand Manan.

The Eastport Arts Center, formerly just a couple of rented rooms, moved three years ago to larger and constantly busy quarters in an old Baptist church. The main hall in the old sanctuary has fixed raked seating for about a hundred, but folding chairs are brought in for bigger events like the Moose Island Follies, a fundraiser talent show that played for two nights last week. Featured on that program was a local ensemble, Pieces of String, a group of five or six teenagers drawn from Eastport Strings. The latter is organized by Alice St. Clair, an NEC violinist and string teacher, who gathers interested kids from age six up through high school for lessons. Last year the senior component of this group played Bach’s Brandenburg 3, conducted by co-director Gregory Biss, composer and pianist, who has lived year-round in Eastport since 1979. Pieces of String plays fiddle music, Irish and American, at occasions all over the area, from weddings to square dances and the Farmers’ Market.  Membership changes constantly; the seniors leave town for college and the six-year-olds move in with eighth-size violins.

In Lubec, two miles across the bay (44 miles by road), the most conspicuous landmark is the bridge to Campobello Island, where the Franklin Roosevelt International Park is jointly administered by the United States and Canadian governments. At the very top of Lubec’s only hill, concerts are offered from July to September at the Congregational Christian Church by SummerKeys. This unique organization is directed by its founder, the pianist Bruce Potterton, who invites adult performers of various levels, from beginners to advanced, to spend musical study vacations in Lubec, one week at a time or longer.

Mostly pianists come to SummerKeys, but there are quite a few others as well – the faculty includes flute, clarinet, cello and guitar.  Each student gets a lesson every day, and there are faculty concerts at 7:30 p.m. every week, sometimes twice a week. In some years a boat ride has been organized from Eastport –  20 minutes across the bay – to augment the audience. You can find out more about SummerKeys at www.summerkeys.com .

Two weeks ago in Eastport there was a fine recital by Gregory Biss, piano, and Trond Saeverud, violin, with a program that included Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, op. 30 no. 2 as its biggest item. The evening was filled out with Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and some delicious items by Fritz Kreisler – one remembers that this great violinist was also a quite capable pianist and a masterful composer – and some rarities: Biss’s own Nocturne for solo piano, and a complex, gnomic but sensuous Three Compositions for piano by the Nikolay Roslavets (1881-1944), who has been called “the Russian Schoenberg.”

Roslavets first became known in America when the late George Perle drew attention to him as a pre-twelve-tone serial composer in Serial Composition and Atonality, which in its sixth edition is still the best book on the subject. Trond Saeverud does a lot of commuting; he lives in Robbinston, about 15 miles north of Eastport on the St. Croix River, but commutes regularly 125 miles to Bangor, where he is concertmaster of the Bangor Symphony. He is the founding director of the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony orchestra, which since two years ago draws on every skilled amateur player for miles around but has not yet attained full size. His grandfather, Harald Saeverud (1897-1992), was one of Norway’s most influential composers following the death of Grieg, and so in recent years we have heard some very good and little-known Scandinavian music.

The violin recital of two weeks ago will be repeated July 8 at SummerKeys in Lubec, and later in Machias, Washington County seat, 45 miles from Eastport. Machias is known to musicologists as the town where the composer James Lyon (1735-1794), publisher of the Urania collection (1762), was pastor for 23 years; but Machias has had its own concert series in the local Congregational Church for many years. Not long ago I heard the Vermeer Quartet there, performing with Jonathan Biss, pianist (he is Gregory Biss’s nephew), in Dvorák’s delightful A major Quintet.

Eastport and Lubec have been host to a number of visiting pianists, including Jonathan Biss, playing on his grandmother’s piano (she was the illustrious Russian cellist Raya Garbousova), and more recently, Mira Gill, a former student of John Browning at the Juilliard School. She returns to Lubec for her third summer this year.

The Organ Historical Society has noted two major instruments in Eastport, a two-manual Hook & Hastings tracker organ from the 1880s in St. Joseph’s (Catholic) Church, and a G. T. Harrison two-manual instrument that the Arts Center kept alive when acquiring the Baptist church. In recent years, having regular access to these instruments, I have begun practicing the organ again for the first time since I last studied at the Longy School in 1956, and recovering the traces of an organistic talent that was never large but is now increasingly satisfying.  I have given two recitals on the Hook & Hastings and will give another one on July 17 in the Arts Center, assuming that its ciphers, squeaks, rubbing keys, and other mechanical infelicities can be minimized. In the easternmost concert venues of the USA, one acquires perforce some modest fix-it skills.

If you’re going to be in this out-of-the-way corner of New England, check www.culturepass.org for a complete summary of everything going on. As I’ve said, there’s nothing to do here but enjoy.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on  Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony. DeVoto especially likes it in Eastport because he can get work done, composing and writing and occasionally performing.

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