PORTLAND – The Portland Chamber Music Festival, Aug. 11-20 at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine, began rather tamely Thursday night compared to programs featuring contemporary composers. But the interpretations, as usual in the 18 years since the festival’s founding, were informed and first-rate, with not a little virtuosity.

The program began with a pleasant, if inconsequential, Sonata in C Major, Op. 3, No. 3 for two violins, by Jean-Marie Leclair, played by Min-Young Kim and Frank Huang.

Full of ornamentation and rapid passage work, it requires virtuoso performers with a knowledge of French baroque style. Both were in evidence, plus a rapport that kept the part exchanges lively and individual.

I was intrigued by the opening adagio section, which for some reason of harmonics, or differences in texture between the violins in unison, sounded like a giant harmonica. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams never ceases to surprise. His “On Wenlock Edge,” based on six poems by A.E. Housman from “A Shropshire Lad,” reveals a quintessentially British composer using French impressionist techniques to set poems by a fellow countryman who combined classical Greco-Roman sensibility with Anglo-Saxon English. 

All very cosmopolitan, but it works beautifully as music.

The work is full of passion and despair but also has moments of wry humor, as in “Oh, When I Was in Love with You.” The dialog between a dead man and his successor, in “Is My Team Ploughing,” is chilling.

Tenor John McVeigh did a masterful job with both rapid and gradual changes of mood and sang the poems more intensely than in most interpretations. He was ably supported by Dena Levine, piano, and a string quartet of Jennifer Elowitch and Miranda Cuckson, violins, Carol Rodland, viola, and Marc Johnson, cello. One could almost see the hills and valleys of England and hear the church bells in “Bredon Hill.”

After intermission came a real crowd-pleaser, the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major, a masterpiece composed by a 16-year-old. Its only letdown is the andante, which strangely lacks the melodic invention of his later works.

The final scherzo and presto presage the music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They make huge demands on the players — four violins, two violas and two cellos — rather like running the mile at the speed of a 100-yard dash. The festival players did it without missing a beat.

The Octet sometimes resembles a violin concerto, and first violin Huang deserves special mention for an outstanding solo performance. The abrupt conclusion drew a standing ovation from a larger-than-usual crowd.

The concert was broadcast live on MPBN. For details on future concerts, go to www.pcmf.org.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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