Could it be that “modern” music is entering the mainstream? The “sandwich” is always popular — a contemporary work performed between two classics, or vice versa, which gives festival producers some assurance that they won’t lose their core audience.

Now the Salt Bay Chamberfest (Aug. 16, 19, 23 and 26 at Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta) is taking the final step. Its first program will consist of  three pieces by contemporary composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, followed by Schoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht.”

I know, “Verklarte Nacht” is a crowd-pleasing late, late Romantic work (1899) with a scandalous poetic program, written before the composer invented the 12-tone method. But still, it’s four pieces of 20th- and 21st-century music on one program. 

Wilhelmina Smith, founder of the Chamberfest, calls it a place where “world-class musicians dedicated to taking musical risks” can feel at home, but the Aug. 16 concert is getting close to Bowdoin’s Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (July 28, 30 and 31 at Studzinski Recital Hall).

As music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen was a champion of contemporary music but did little composing himself, feeling inhibited by the European modernist traditions he had been taught in Finland such as avoidance of melody, harmony and rhythmic pulse.

His conducting of John Adams’ music convinced him there were other viable approaches to composition, and his first work in an eclectic style, “LA Variations”  (1997) was a great success. He has since composed a large number of works that combine a new-found freedom with his modernist roots. He has said, “Musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression It all comes out of the body.”

The Salt Bay musicians will perform the U.S. premiere of Salonen’s “Knock, Breathe, Shine” for cello, “Lachen Verlernt (Laughing Unlearned)” for violin, and “Homunculus” for string quartet.

“Homunculus” refers to the medieval concept of a sperm as a little man. It tries to create the effect of a full-length string quartet in the space of 15 minutes, with “characters,” each with its own musical signature, instead of movements. The characters interact with each other dramatically throughout.

The concert on Aug. 19 will feature the work of Matthias Pintscher, plus Schubert and Handel; Aug. 23 will see the world premiere of a piano trio by Tamar Muskal, plus Beethoven and Brahms; and the finale on Aug. 23 will again be all (relatively) modern works by Stravinsky, Copland, Pierre Jalbert (the Maine premiere of his quintet) and Faure’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in C Minor, with pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn (yes, he is the famous author’s son).

I have been attending Salt Bay concerts since their inception in 1995, and they always live up to their advance billing, with fine musicians equally at home — and passionate about — the classics as well as music by living composers. Every year, the audience in the Round Top’s Darrows Barn gets larger, so it would be advisable to order tickets at or call 522-3749.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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