During his sabbatical last semester, composer Daniel Sonenberg spent a lot of time thinking about baseball.
To be fair and accurate, Sonenberg did more than just think about the game. He actually wrote an opera about it.
The teacher at the University of Southern Maine School of Music composed “The Summer King,” based on the life of Negro League ballplayer Josh Gibson. Two arias and two duets from the opera will receive their first public performance this weekend as part of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, hosted by the Portland Conservatory of Music.
Now in its fourth year, the festival features four concerts over two days at Memorial Hall at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.
In addition to Sonenberg, the festival features work by several Maine composers, including Elliott Schwartz, Gia Comolli, Mark Tipton, Joshua DeScherer, Josh Newton and Beth Wiemann. Other featured composers are from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
The abundance of new work on the program testifies to the growth of original music in the Portland area, said Schwartz, who lives in South Freeport.
“It highlights the existence of many more composers in the state of Maine than you may think there may be,” he said. “Your next-door neighbor might be a composer. They are all doing exciting work, and we have to acknowledge that the great figures like Beethoven and Mozart cannot stand alone. We must encourage new work.”
The festival features a number of combinations of musicians playing a variety of instruments, said Carole Elowe, who teaches at the conservatory and helped organize the festival with Schwartz. There will be duets, trios and ensemble performances.
“There is chamber music, but also just voice and piano,” Elowe said. “We have harp and piano on one program, and the Sunday concerts will feature harp, piano, clarinet and a variety of other instruments.”
The schedule looks like this:
At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, conservatory students will perform music written by Eric Sawyer, Elizabeth Austin, DeScherer, Nancy Gunn, Lajes Papp, Diane Goolkasian Rahbee, Morton Feldman and Francois Poulnac. Sawyer, Patricia Julien, Austin and Gunn will work with the student performers prior to the recital.
At 4 p.m. Saturday, musicians will perform music by Sonenberg, DeScherer and Tipton.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, musicians will perform music by Sawyer, Newton, Comolli and Gregory Hall.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, a concert will feature music by Schwartz, Wiemann, Richard Nelson, Paul Thomas, Gay Pearson and John Cage.
Sonenberg wrote “The Summer King” as a tribute to Gibson, whom he described as “a hulking catcher who died tragically at the age of 35 in 1947, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.” The performances on Saturday will offer a limited sketch of the opera.
Those who attend will hear Josh and Helen Gibson as a young couple singing about his bright future; Calvin and Clark Griffith, the white owner of the Washington Senators and his nephew and protege, respectively, singing a duet about their belief that it’s in Gibson’s best interests not to play with white players; Josh’s mistress, Grace, telling Josh that she is leaving him; and finally, Josh’s best friend, Sam, singing about Josh immediately after his death.
Admission to the festival is by donation. Elowe said the conservatory decided to waive a fixed ticket price to encourage people to attend.
“People go to chamber concerts, people go to the symphony, and they go to many other kinds of concerts. But this festival offers a variety of music that a lot of people do not get to hear very often,” she said.
“People enjoy it and they have a good time, because the atmosphere is very informal. It opens your mind to a lot of new sounds and a lot of new instrumentations. We want people to come and listen and enjoy themselves.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or [email protected]