The eighteenth season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival has turned out to be an auspicious one. This year it has been selected for inclusion in a series of recorded-live New England summer music festivals being produced by WGBH for national distribution; and it is a feather in the caps of festival Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch and its board and business sponsors to have achieved this recognition. We made it up to the festival’s current venue, the Hannaford room in the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland, for the concert on August 18. This featured a singularly appealing mix of programming consisting of a Beethoven string trio, a recent work for oboe quintet by Melinda Wagner, and the Poulenc Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet. (“I love the programming best of all,” Elowitch told us. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop”!)
The Beethoven String Trio No. 5 in C minor, op. 9 No. 3, shows the composer staking out territory he was to occupy for the rest of his life: one item being his obsession with C minor as the key for stern, serious, high-minded music; another, the emotional content that stretches the capacity of classical form to contain; and a more particular one, the use of the space that had been reserved for a stately minuet to deliver powerful, angular, even grotesque sounds. The players in this instance, violinist Sunghae Anna Lim, violist Jonathan Vinocur, and cellist Natasha Brofsky, delivered a performance that, while not overpowering in volume or projection, was well balanced, refined and very well planned in dynamics, and fully persuasive. Their many unisons and octave passages were not only perfectly together but also individually crafted for dynamics and expression. Lim’s delicate passagework adorned the slow movement, while all three contributed brilliance and bravura to the rhythmically and melodically jolting anti-minuet of the scherzo. The finale demonstrated superb high-energy bowing, especially in softer passages. (Their bowing during the applause was more dignified and restrained….)
Melinda Wagner’s Skritch (2010) for oboe and string quartet carries an enigmatic title that composer and retired Bowdoin College professor Elliott Schwartz, in his pre-concert walk-through of the program, sought — vainly, as it happened — to interpret. In an on-stage interview just before the work’s performance between the composer and the evening’s emcee, Maine Public Radio Music Director and program host Suzanne Nance, Wagner said the title was applied after the piece was completed and was a quasi-nonsense word much favored by her late father, with vague connotations of low-level annoying noise or conduct. The work to which this title has been appended is in a single movement of five sections, beginning with a disjointed series of gestures in the strings — call them “skritchy” if you like — that the oboe picks up and domesticates, with meters and harmonics gradually smoothing out before a contrasting lyrical passage. The oboe (the estimable Peggy Pearson), although getting its share of solos, is not a concertante player here. Its character ranges from team player to provocateur, and sometimes these attributes alternate between oboe and strings. One gets the sense that the materials of all the sections — which touch all the bases, from slow and lyrical to scherzo-ish to assertive — are related, though below the surface. On the whole, the work struck us as ingratiating, but not profound. Pearson was careful to keep the oboe’s more garrulous qualities well under control. The ensemble, which besides Pearson comprised Lim and Elowitch, violins, Vinocur, viola, and Claire Bryant, cello, were clearly on top of the materials and made a strong case for the piece.
The second half of the program provided a radical sonic contrast to the first, by doing away with the strings and introducing a piano, for Francis Poulenc’s 1930s masterpiece, Sextet. Surprisingly, considering how much of a set ensemble a wind quintet is, there are very few works that add a piano to it, in contrast to the piano-plus-string-quartet quintet. The only examples we know of are by George Onslow, Ludwig Thuille (the one Brahms would have written had he written for wind ensembles), and Wallingford Riegger, none of whom are exactly household names these days. Between the Poulenc and the Thuille, which is quite popular with wind players, there could not be a greater contrast. While Thuille, perhaps uniquely among those who have essayed this medium, sought to use the piano as a matrix in which to blend the unique timbres of the winds, Poulenc, with his French love of wind sonorities, reveled in their dissimilarities and kept the piano part more or less in the background.
We describe the performance the Poulenc received Thursday as somewhat on the “wet” side: often glowing and rounded rather than biting and hard-edged. This was particularly true of hornist Theodore Primis, whose sound was lush and opulent, and his brother, bassoonist Damian Primis, enthralled with his first-movement solo that hung suspended in mid-air. The slow movement features one of Poulenc’s patented and cunning melodies, simple almost to banality but fraught with melancholy. Flutist Elizabeth Mann played this beautifully but reticently; Pearson, when it came her turn, rendered it to perfection. The finale is a gallimaufry (but a charming one) of snatches of rapidly changing character garnished with rhythmic punch and sudden whiffs of nostalgia, with which it concludes. Of the players not yet cited, we approve of clarinetist Todd Palmer’s tone and projection, though he once or twice seemed to forget he was part of a team. Pianist Dena Levine was, as we said, more of a background and linking presence than under a spotlight, but she held up her end gamely, assisted not at all by the muddy-sounding Steinway that it was her lot to confront.