As artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Jennifer Elowitch has made it her mission to bring nationally recognized artists to Portland to present a range of classical chamber music, including the music of living composers.

This year’s festival, which opens today and runs through Aug. 20 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, features two highly regarded composers. One is Pulitzer Prize-winner Melinda Wagner; the other is Lee Hyla, chair of composition at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Hyla is in town this week. His piece, “Amnesia Redux for Piano Trio” from 2002, is part of Saturday’s program. Wagner is coming next week to present “Scritch” for oboe and string quartet on Aug. 18. Suzanne Nance, host of MPBN’s “Morning Classical” radio show, will interview Wagner as part of the concert program.

Most summers prior to the Portland festival, Elowitch, a violinist, attends a national composer’s conference at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She participates as a performer, and uses the contacts she makes to lay the groundwork for luring composers to Portland. It was there that she met Wagner.

Conversely, she has known Hyla for many years. He taught at the New England Conservatory in Boston when Elowitch was associated with the school. “I have been telling him for years how much I wanted him to come to Portland,” she said.

For a variety of reasons, that never worked out. Then last winter, Elowitch ran into Hyla on a plane. After reaching cruising altitude, she renewed her pitch.

“I told him that Miranda Cuckson was going to be at the festival,” Elowitch said. “She is one of the most well-known new music violinists around, a new music specialist. He was really excited about the fact that she was going to be there.”

That clinched the deal.

Elowitch likes it when composers attend the festival, because it helps humanize the new-music experience for the audience. She usually asks composers to say a few words about the music as an introduction.

When people interact with the composer, it connects them with the human side of the piece, shifts their perspective and creates context for the music, she said.

Wagner, who lives in the New York area, enjoys the experience. She likes talking about her music, and also appreciates feedback from the audience and musicians.

“One thing that is really exciting about being a composer, you can expect to have a different performance every time a piece is done,” Wagner said. “So you can sort of follow it around and see how it sounds. It’s always an entirely different experience.”

Wagner won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1999, and wrote “Scritch” as a commission.

“I wanted it be a lighter piece and sort of fun,” she said. “Even though the oboe is the odd man out, I tried very hard to have the group be integrated and supporting one another musically, and not just have the strings as a back-up to float the oboe sound. It’s a fun piece, light and lyrical.”

A highlight for Wagner will be hearing oboist Peggy Pearson perform.

“She is one of my favorite oboists,” Wagner said. “I’ve known her for about a year or so, but I have known of her from her recordings for a long time. One of my favorite situations is going into a rehearsal with musicians I admire and enjoy, and listening to them work through the piece.

“This one is actually hard to play. There are a lot of corners, a lot of ins and outs. Rhythmically, it is not an easy piece to put together, but I hope it sounds easy to the audience.”

Elowitch feels strongly that new music is underplayed and under-appreciated. If people give it a chance, they usually end up liking it, she said. The key is getting people to listen with an open mind.

“It doesn’t have to be the off-putting experience that they expect. New music can be fun, light-hearted and joyful,” she said.

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

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