The Portland Chamber Music Festival, which runs Thursday to Aug. 20 at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland, may not have gone as far as the Salt Bay Chamberfest in programming contemporary music, but it comes very close.

It uses the classical-contemporary sandwich to avoid alienating traditional audiences too much, while presenting some cutting-edge composers at each concert.

This season’s opening concert will begin the festival gently with “On Wenlock Edge” for tenor, string quartet and piano, with Portland tenor John McVeigh. While Ralph Vaughan Williams is certainly a 20th-century composer and “Wenlock Edge” a great work, it is not likely to cause a riot like the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

On the same bill are the Leclair Duo for Two Violins and the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major (Op. 20).

Lee Hyla’s “Amnesia Redux for Piano Trio” (2002), which will grace Saturday’s concert, skips the 20th century entirely. Hyla is Wyatt Chair of Music Composition at Northwestern University in Chicago. Maine audiences may remember the fine performance of his “Howl,” a setting of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

“Amnesia Redux” is a delightful mingling of haunting melody and the 21st-century equivalent of baroque ornamentation.

The “classical” works on the program are Beethoven’s Viola Quintet in C Major (Op. 29) and the Faure Piano Quintet in C Minor (Op. 15).

The most “modern” work of the festival is “Scritch” for oboe and string quartet (2010) by Melinda Wagner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who will be interviewed on stage by Suzanne Nance of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network during the Aug. 18 concert. The oboe part will be played by Peggy Pearson.

A review of “Scritch” called it “well-crafted and tasteful,” which is not quite what the composer intended in a work whose title means “screech.”

In Wagner’s own words: “Music offers composers an immeasurably rich and generous sonic landscape in which to explore the ‘life story’ of each musical idea — its dramas, intrigues, joys and sorrows — a life. I strive to find various and persuasive ways of moving through the resulting temporal narrative, and to traverse a wide spectrum of expression and color on the way.

“Ultimately, I want listeners to know me; I want them to hear that while I enjoy the cerebral exercise, I am led principally by my ear, and by my heart.”

Wagner will be sandwiched between Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor (Op. 9, No. 3) and Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds.

The final concert, Aug. 20, will pair Schubert’s Octet for Winds and Strings in F Major (D. 803), with “Lullaby and Doina” (2001) by Osvaldo Golijov. A doina is a somber Romanian musical form often used for elegies, and has been referred to as the Romania blues. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at [email protected]