The focus of the opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, Tuesday night at the Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta, was the U.S. premiere of “knock, breathe, shine” by the eminent conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen wanted to attend the premiere but was busy conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg festival.

The new work, played by cellist Wilhelmina Smith, founder of the Chamberfest, is a fantastically difficult piece that has been described by the composer as “juggling three chain saws.” Smith, before playing it, said it was more like a chain saw, a fireball and an egg, which describes aptly its mixture of jagged edges, intensity and delicacy.

Salonen’s compositions, while distinctly “modern,” flirt with tonality, and reveal unexplored instrumental possibilities without resorting to gimmicks. Just the sound, of what seemed like triple or quadruple stops, is enough to captivate an audience into a willing suspension of disbelief.

The second section, “breathe,” forgoes some of the technical fireworks in favor of a children’s song that seemed to me a lament for innocent victims the world over. It is piercing in its intensity. The finale, “shine,” combines technical feats with equally intense feeling. Smith accomplished a tour de force of virtuosity, but more important, revealed the underlying musical content.

The “Lachen Verlernt” (freely interpreted as “I have forgotten how to laugh”) for solo violin, is equally passionate and complex. The composer has compared its form to that of the well-known Bach Chaconne from the D-minor Partita, and the comparison is justified. Judging by this work, and the opening one for cello, the 21st century has, in Salonen, produced a composer who dares challenge the supremacy of Bach in writing for solo stringed instrument. 

Jennifer Koh, who has recorded this work, gave it a definitive performance, tossing off technical impossibilities as if they were child’s play.

I was not as enthralled with Salonen’s string quartet, “Homunculus,” performed by the Johannes String Quartet, for which it was written. The interpretation was strong, devoted and virtually perfect in all respects, but the work itself is so dense that it is difficult to follow at times. It has some wonderful moments, for example when the interacting “characters” of the drama come together for powerful unison playing, or the climax of the scherzo on a C-major chord, ending in a long chromatic glissando, like a sigh.

The program concluded with Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht,” in its original form as a sextet for strings, played by the Johannes String Quartet plus Koh and Smith.

The original is superior to the more popular orchestral version in every way, revealing subtleties of drama and characterization that are obscured by larger groupings, without sacrificing volume or dynamics.

Every work on the program received a well-deserved standing ovation from the capacity audience.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]