The classical music experiment at Space Gallery in Portland continues as the downtown gallery and nightclub hosts a Portland Chamber Music Festival concert on May 23.

But first, the Mexican cantina El Rayo will host a “Feed the Arts” benefit this Sunday. The York Street restaurant will donate 10 percent of its sales that day to the Portland Chamber Music Festival, which celebrates its 20th season this summer in Portland with regular season concerts Aug. 8-17.

The Space concert marks the second time festival musicians have performed at the downtown gallery.

“The classical music mantra these days is figuring out ways to reach new and different audiences,” said festival organizer and musician Jennifer Elowitch of Portland. “One way to do that is to go to them instead of expecting them to come to you all the time.”

At the first Space concert in October, festival musicians drew a capacity crowd. The setting was relaxed and fun.

“The vibe is completely different than the normal classical vibe,” Elowitch said. “They have cocktails for sale, which we like. And you can be as grungy as you’d like. I don’t mean that disparagingly. But you can be yourself there.

“At the summer festival, people ask me all the time, ‘What should I wear?’ I say, ‘Whatever you feel like.’ We’re trying to get rid of barriers for people.”

One way to do that is with music.

The May 23 program features three pieces, including a premiere by University of Maine professor Beth Wiemann titled “Minor Blasts, Some Flurries,” and major works by two leading contemporary composers, Steve Reich and John Zorn.

The Wiemann premiere represents an adaptation of a much longer piece that she wrote eight years ago.

“It was a 20-minute-long string quartet, and I realized after looking back on it that parts of it work really well and parts of it don’t,” Wiemann said. “When Jenny gave me the opportunity, I said, ‘Let me adapt the parts that work.’ “

The result is a taut, crisp string quartet that conjures feelings of wind and weather. Wiemann jokes that while the original composition suggested a major weather event, the new truncated version represents a minor storm.

“Minor Blasts, Some Flurries” also represents the most conservative piece on the schedule. Zorn and Reich each composed their pieces in 1988, and both are widely played, richly complex pieces of music that are challenging for the musicians and audiences alike.

Both composers are heavyweights in the music world — Reich is a Pulitzer Prize winner; Zorn has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Zorn’s piece is “Cat O’ Nine Tails (Tex Avery directs the Marquis de Sade).” The Reich piece is called “Different Trains.”

The titles bear explanation. Zorn is best known in jazz circles, and has earned a reputation for writing abrupt and crazy juxtapositions of material that mix many styles and modes. He includes country fiddle in his music and avant-garde classical, then adds a flourish of music for cartoons and the movies.

“It is meant to be hilarious and jarring,” Elowitch said. “It is not classical in the sense that you think of at all.”

Case in point: In the score, the composer instructs the violins to play three seconds of “torture/turning screws/hard scrape (very ugly).” Said Elowitch, “That is my direction of the beginning of the piece — for three seconds. I don’t know what that means.” Later, the score instructs her to play a five-second phrase of “virtuoso freak-out.”

“Different Trains” is a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape, and was originally performed and recorded by the Kronos Quartet. It won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Pre-recorded music and sounds of trains and human voices will play while the musicians perform “Trains” live.

“We’re just trying to experiment a little, and Space seems like the right place to do it,” Elowitch said. “We’re very excited about playing there. We had a great time in October, and we’re eager to do it again. We want people to come out and have some fun.” 

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

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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