The 20th anniversary season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival got off to a good start on August 8, at its usual venue, the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine. None of the works on the program would be considered dog-eared favorites, but each was well chosen individually and collectively to constitute a well balanced program.
The opening work was Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major for viola da gamba and keyboard, BWV 1028, played here on a modern viola by Jessica Thompson and a modern harpsichord (Allan Winkler out of Medford) by Peter Sykes. Bach isn’t heard that frequently on “standard” chamber music concerts any more, barring the occasional unaccompanied suite or partita to show off a soloist’s chops—more’s the pity. Thompson’s and Sykes’s performance was also not of the sort one might have heard on recitals 50 years ago, eschewing as it did any flashy modern sonority and instead relying on superb balance, precise articulation, and, especially in the finale, rhythmic pep.
The relatively brief first half of the program concluded with a 2012 work by Anna Weesner, who teaches at Penn. Sudden, Unbidden for violin (Frank Huang) and cello (Michael Kannen) was a reworking of a piece for string quartet from 1998. After a welter of words from the composer, both in her program note and live from the stage, replete with behavioral modern-ese phrases that conjured philosophical conundrums and portended the “just one damn thing after another” compositional technique, the piece actually delivered. It was a delightfully well wrought and seemingly conventionally structured sonata movement pitting a vigorous, syncopated opening idea against a dreamy lyrical second subject featuring ethereal harmonics and upper range fingered sonorities—very well executed by both players in turn. Then, by gum, these ideas are fragmented and played off one another, sometimes exchanging characters, revisited as initially presented, and capped off with a convincing coda that lets you know things are coming to an end. Not a terribly profound work, but so cogently argued that one would enjoy hearing it again.
The second half featured a much larger work, the Concert (sometimes called Concerto) for violin, piano and string quartet in D major, op. 21, by Ernest Chausson. Despite the aggressive French stance Chausson took in naming the piece and its movements to conjure French Baroque connections, with the exception of the finale there isn’t much French about it, unless one thinks of the French Wagnerites like Franck and D’Indy. The music is harmonically dense and chromatic, and the argument gnarled and complicated in the manner of Viennese like Reger and Thuille; nothing here to suggest the limpidity of a Saint-Saëns or the delicacy of a Fauré. Still, it is an impressive piece whose central conceit is the pitting, with a tip of the beret to Baroque concerto grosso technique, of the “violin sonata” ensemble against the string quartet ripieno. In practice, however, the solo violin (Jesse Mills) and piano (Rieko Aizawa) don’t often perform as a unit (the opening of the third movement is a lovely exception). More often, in fact, the effect is more of a violin solo against a conventional piano quintet, though other standard ensembles are also evoked, like one passage in the first movement for piano trio. The writing for the string quartet, here consisting of Huang and PCMF Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch on violin, Thompson, and Kannen, is mostly monolithic, as one would expect in a piano quintet, but even less inclined to the individuation of parts you find in, say, the Schumann or Brahms piano quintets. The piece does, however, make a compelling argument for live performance, as visualizing these different combinations is critical to understanding what Chausson was getting at.
All of this is purely reportorial and isn’t meant as a criticism of the work itself, which, despite some lapses into fin-de-siècle over-wroughtness, is fascinating, powerful and compelling. Mills was highly expressive and emotive, despite sometimes inadequate raw volume. His best moments were in the second movement Sicilienne, which has a beautiful tune and which, along with the slow third movement focuses on some wonderful chord changes. The finale, of course, has grand bravura elements. It is also the place where Aizawa was best able to display a previously untapped lightness of tone, thereby escaping captivity at the far left side of the keyboard, where Chausson had ungallantly and ungallically consigned her.
We’re only sorry we can’t cover all four of the concerts in this year’s series (the remaining ones are this and next Saturday and next Thursday), since the programs for all of them seem uncommonly strong. The Thursday/Saturday scheduling makes attending a full weekend a little awkward for those traveling long distances (and a bit expensive, now that the Maine Turnpike has raised its tolls), but for those planning or in the middle of an extended stay in Maine, the festival is well worth checking out.