One of America’s first female composers, Boston’s Amy Beach (1867-1944), stole the show at the season’s opening concert of the Portland String Quartet, Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church.

Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Paganini, (Op. 5, Book II), in a similar style, might have given her some strong competition, but had to be canceled because of a serious injury to pianist Virginia Eskin.

Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor (Op. 67) (1908) included guest artists Cheryl Tschanz on piano and Dean Stein on violin. It is Brahmsian in style and richness of harmony but infused with Beach’s considerable originality, gift for melody and attention to niceties of instrumental timbre, making a combination of stringed instruments sound uncannily like the human voice, or a choir of woodwinds.

At times, the quintet sounds like a piano concerto, but Beach always remembers where she is, eventually, and compensates with some lovely, and occasionally fortissimo, string passages.

The piano writing’s difficulties consist primarily of trills and rapid scales, flawlessly rendered by Tschanz.

Finally, the score is not merely a late-Romantic effusion but carefully structured – for example, restating the opening adagio as a lead-in to the brief presto that concludes the piece. Without reading in too much social commentary, the melancholy adagio, interrupted by violent outbursts from the piano, seems a metaphor for the composer’s marriage to a prominent doctor, during which she was not able to concertize.

The work was performed perfectly and with its full range of dramatic contrasts, something that could not be said for the Beethoven String Quartet in B-flat Major (Op. 18, No. 6) that opened the program.

Instead of the programmed Paganini Variations and Beach’s Variations on a Balkan Theme, the audience heard the “Poem” Adagio for string quartet by Rebecca Clarke, and “D’un Vieux Jardine” for piano, by Lili Boulanger.

Clarke, who was born in Great Britain but spent most her life in the United States, is an even better composer than Beach, but in a more “modern” idiom. While giving a prominent position to the viola – she was trained as a violist – she creates amazing textural combinations in the service of a subdued, introspective atmosphere from which dream shapes arise.

There is one passage, where the cello sounds the beat of a distant drum, that is a stroke of genius.

Poor Lili, the sister of famous pedagog Nadia Boulanger, was recognized as having the potential for greatness but died before it could be fully realized. Her pianistic sketch of an old garden is lovely and appropriate, painting a new blossom emerging from the musical ferment that marked Paris before World War I.

Tschanz did it full justice.

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

[email protected]