PORTLAND – The Portland Chamber Music Festival is known for its risk-taking and sometimes unusual programming.

Such is the case with the festival-opening concert, scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine.

The program features all-harp, all the time.

“The harp is not what you would normally hear,” says festival co-artistic director Jennifer Elowtich. “It’s such a complex instrument, and it offers such an incredible range of color. It’s something you just don’t get to hear very often, and so to have a chamber music concert focused on that instrument is rare.”

The festival opens Thursday and continues with concerts on Saturday, Aug. 15, Aug. 19 and Aug. 21.

Thursday’s program features music by Ibert, Ravel, Schumann and Daniel Sonenberg, a Portland-area composer. Sonenberg is assistant professor of music and composer in residence at the School of Music at USM.

He wrote a piece called “Whistlesparks” for flute and harp in 2007, with a limited use of piccolo.

“When I wrote it, I was just thinking about the sound of these instruments,” Sonenberg said. “On one hand, that instrumental combination makes it difficult to get away from the idea of (French composer Claude) Debussy. And yet, my hope was to write something a little bit more percussive, sharp and a little biting for those instruments that are so lush, gorgeous and ethereal.”

Despite Sonenberg’s best intentions, the influence of Debussy in the piece is unavoidable.

The featured soloist for Thursday’s program is Bridget Kibbey, winner of a 2004 Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Sonenberg said it’s a thrill to be involved with the festival. Year in and year out, the Portland Chamber Music Festival includes top-caliber musicians, he said.

“It’s one of the great events of the classical music scene up here in Portland. It’s just like a concert series you would see in the heart of New York City or any other major classical music city. It’s very exciting.”

Elowitch and her colleague, co-director Dena Levine, invited Sonenberg to participate in the festival because they agreed that it would behoove the festival to bolster its relationship with USM. The festival already utilizes USM’s facilities. It might as well also tap the expertise of its faculty, she said.

“We believe there are a lot of good things going on at USM and we want to support what they do,” Elowitch said. “The School of Music is one of the jewels of USM, but because the school is in Gorham, it is sometimes out of the loop. featuring their faculty in our programming, that is one way we can bring it forward and help bring them more attention in Portland.”

Another tweak that fans may notice this year is a slightly more informal setting for Saturday’s concert, which features Grammy Award-winning Chinese composer Chen Yi.

Suzanne Nance of Maine Public Broadcasting Network will host the concert. She will introduce the pieces, explain their origins and interview the musicians and composer on stage.

“We’re excited, because we believe Suzanne has reinvigorated classical music programming on MPBN. All the classical musicians in Maine have taken notice that the level of classical music intelligence and programming have been elevated. She is very engaging. We wanted to tap into her energy and enthusiasm,” Elowitch said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]