Jennifer Elowitch isn’t trying to sound high and mighty, but it’s hard for her to understate the importance of new music to the Portland Chamber Music Festival.

“We feel that one of our roles is to be part of creating the repertoire for the 21st century,” said Elowitch, artistic director and co-founder of the festival, which opens Thursday and continues for two weekends. “I feel strongly about us taking part in the evolution of chamber music. I feel it’s a mistake to only book a warhorse piece.”

Backing words with action — and money — the festival will debut a piano trio by Connecticut-based composer Nick DiBerardino during Saturday’s concert at the Abromson Community Education Center at the University of Southern Maine.

DiBerardino won the festival’s Composer’s Competition, which carries a $1,000 prize. That’s not enough money to change the course of one’s life, but for a young composer starting out, it’s a significant sum, and ample incentive to submit music to the competition.

Elowitch said the festival received more than 150 entries, which were judged anonymously by a trio of Maine composers: Elliott Schwartz, Daniel Sonenberg and Beth Wiemann.

“We like to give composers a chance to be heard,” Elowitch said. “We offer a substantial prize to composers who are so often not getting paid for their work, and a performance by professional players.”

The concerts are also recorded, so the composer receives a high-quality recording to take away.

The festival features four concerts over two weeks on consecutive Thursdays and Saturdays, with a free children’s concert for ages 3 to 7 and their families on Sunday afternoon.

DiBerardino’s piece is titled “27 Morningside,” which references the address of the home in Connecticut where he grew up. It’s an ode to home and a testament to “wonderful moments passed,” he writes in the program notes.

DiBerardino, 24, is familiar with Maine. His family vacations on Long Pond at Belgrade Lakes. He attended the New England Music Camp at Sidney in high school, and studied composition at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick last summer.

He was immediately drawn to the Composers Competition, because “as a young composer, there’s nothing better than an opportunity to have your music played at a high level,” he wrote in an email.

“I was excited to see that this year’s competition was for piano trio as well, as I think it’s just a gorgeous instrumentation — growing up studying the piano has made piano textures very useful to me compositionally, and there’s nothing better than the sounds of strings over the more percussive timbre of the piano.” (In addition to the piano, a piano trio includes violin and cello.)

“27 Morningside” will be performed by husband and wife Jesse Mills on violin and Rieko Aizawa on piano, plus cellist Claire Bryant.

DiBerardino strives to write music that is complex and intricate but also accessible. He wants to write music that, as he says, “sounds good” and is also original, emotive and intellectually stimulating.

“I think what sustains my creative energy is a belief in the power of music to communicate to people, to reach audiences, and to draw communities together,” he said. “For me, composition is fundamentally social. It really is the transmission of an idea: The composer dreams it, the performer expresses it, and the listener makes it something of his own.

“All of this requires infinite energies of collaborative engagement, but the last step — from performance to audience — is the key. If you reach an audience, you’ve reached a community, and the impact of your music travels outside the world of music.”

This marks the 20th year of the festival. It began on sheer will and a shoestring, hatched by two women living in New York and dreaming about opportunities in music. Elowitch, who grew up in Portland, and Dena Levine began the festival on faith.

“We would sit in her apartment in New York and stuff envelopes for 11 hours. Neither of us owned a computer, but we traded a lot on youthful energy. Neither of us were married, and neither of us had kids,” Elowitch said.

“We had nobody backing us. We literally sent out a letter in the fall of 1993 to everyone we knew, including some non-profits, saying, ‘We want to start this music festival. It’s going to be next August.’ And people started sending us checks. We got $10,000 on that mailing.”

They recruited eight musicians, but could not promise they would be paid.

Much has changed. The festival now features more than two dozen performers, all of whom are paid.

Levine has since moved on, and Elowitch has moved back to Maine — first to Portland and recently to Cumberland. She is married, with children.

The festival is well established, and stands as one of the top classical music events in Maine in the summer. Further, the festival has expanded its programming beyond two weeks in August. It offers programming year-round, and has launched a chamber music series with Space Gallery in Portland.

One thing, however, remains the same.

“I’m equally passionate now as I was then,” Elowitch said. “I am full of passion for this, and I am not going anywhere. Our story now is that we care about Portland as a community and being right in it and being an integral part of it.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes