Now in its ninth year, the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival is a weekend-long explosion of new chamber music, largely – though not exclusively – by composers with Maine connections. This year’s installment, which is directed by the cellist and composer Philip Carlsen, is packed with thematic ideas, sometimes with several rolled together in a single concert.
Two of those strands came together in the opening program, on Friday evening at Woodfords Congregational Church. One was a commemoration of the influential composer Elliott Schwartz, whose 80th birthday the festival celebrated last year, and who died in December. The other was a focus on musicians who are important figures in Portland’s musical ecology year-round, several of whom are also on the conservatory’s faculty.
Among them was the Portland Piano Trio, which made its debut earlier this season and is already among the city’s must-hear groups. It performed four of the program’s nine works, including the opening and closing pieces. Harold Stover performed in several works, appearing as both composer and organist, in one case with the fine soprano Elisabeth Marshall. And the Portland String Quartet was on hand to play the centerpiece of the concert’s first half, the United States premiere of Schwartz’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Portrait of DeeDee”).
Schwartz composed the quartet in memory of his wife, Dorothy, a visual artist and teacher who died in 2014.
It is a warm work, celebratory rather than funereal. Thematic fragments from musical works she admired (including Schwartz’s own), as well as themes built on the letters of her name and her husband’s, are woven through the piece, but they are subtle – more a private message than an ear-catching pastiche. The Portland String Quartet caught its spirit perfectly, as well as a substantive undercurrent that runs through so many of Schwartz’s works – intense chromaticism in the service of emotional depth.
Delvyn Case, who studied with Schwartz in his early years and whose music occasionally turns up on Portland Symphony Orchestra programs, was represented by two substantial scores.
His “Number the Clouds,” which opened the program in an energetic, focused reading by the Portland Piano Trio, is based on the biblical Book of Job, and embraces that story’s tumult and tragedy, as well as its ultimate sense of calm mystery, in an episodic sequence of changeable textures, and harmonies that move from dense and pained to invitingly transparent.
The program’s second Case work, on the program’s second half, was a graceful, mildly angular, characterful setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung with a dusky tone by Marshall, with Stover playing the chromatic organ accompaniment.
Earlier, Stover performed his own “Five Preludes on American Folk Hymns,” a set that touches on an array of American vernacular influences, ranging from the hymn tunes themselves, to fleeting jazz phrasing within Stover’s elaboration on “When I Hear That Trumpet Sound in That Morning,” to the chromatic rumbling and dissonant harmonizations, in the spirit of Charles Ives, that run throughout the set.
Stover’s other contributions included the organ part in Mark DeVoto’s gentle, inventive “Zvon III (In memoriam, Elliott Schwartz, 1936-2016),” a piece built around the sounds of tolling bells, which were incorporated into the supple piano part, which DeVoto played; and the lengthy, ruminative and not especially interesting prelude from Eric Sawyer’s “Our American Cousin,” an opera that takes its title from the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.
The Portland Piano Trio closed the program with three colorful works. Nancy Gunn’s Trio No. 1, composed in 1994, when she lived in Greenwich Village (she now teaches at the University of Southern Maine), captures the energy of New York in its brash, edgy opening movement, but also shows the city’s quieter side in its gently neo-Impressionist finale.
In the work’s closing passages, Gunn quotes the Irish ballad “Danny Boy,” a tip of the hat, she said, to her brother. But it was also a link to Stephanie Ann Boyd’s “Ancestry Variations,” a wide-ranging, imaginative expansion on a set of Celtic folk melodies.
Between the Gunn and Boyd, the trio played Francis Kayali’s “Choreodography No. 2,” a playful work, full of scampering figures that disguise Kayali’s freewheeling jaunts between Serialism and tonality, with hints of pop themes along the way.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: