The Maine Festival of American Music, June 24-27, a collaboration between the Portland String Quartet and the Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

The relationship between the musicians and the community began some 40 years ago, when the quartet discovered the magical acoustics of the Shaker Meeting House overlooking Sabbathday Lake. No one can fall asleep there, although in June it can get pretty hot, because the seats are too uncomfortable and, more importantly, the sound is like being inside the resonating chamber of a cello.

Seating arrangements in meeting houses were intended to mortify the flesh, like wearing a hair shirt. Today they are gladly endured by many music lovers, so it would be advisable to get tickets early at maineshakers.com.

The Portland String Quartet, and its noted guest artists, always seem to find a way to keep the audience on the edge of its seats, uncomfortable or not. I recall some great ragtime, exceptional works by American women, a Native American story teller, a performance of a string quartet said to have been written by Benjamin Franklin when he was in Paris (none of the parts required fingerings, all being played upon open strings), a Gershwin prelude written when he was thinking of emulating Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier,” a string quartet version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” some of the 1,000 Shaker hymns still extant, and many other musical delights.

If there is one item in this year’s program that is not to be missed, even if you have to stand outside in the rain, it is American composer Henry Cowell’s String Quartet No. 4, (“United”), played by the PSQ last October. Cowell somehow synthesizes his encyclopedic knowledge of world music into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. As composer Peter Garland put it in his article “Giving Us Permission” (“Other Minds,” 2006):

“When I think about what makes U.S. composers different (some of us, that is) from our European colleagues … all the various factors and issues boil down to a very simple answer: we had Henry Cowell … In the 1920s and 1930s, at least, Henry Cowell was at the very center of U.S. musical life, and if he became marginalized later, in the shadows of Copland populism and academic serialism, he seems to be staging a comeback recently, at least since his centennial celebrations in 1997.”

The opening festival concert on June 24 with guest cellist Patrick Owen, will begin with the Cowell, followed by guest fusion violinist Matthew Szemela with improvisations on Shaker music. After intermission, he will join the PSQ in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Viola Quintet, Op. 97.

On June 25, composer Kevin Seigfried will conduct the Portsmouth Singers in a program of Shaker songs, followed by a performance of his “Land of Pure Delight,” for string quartet,

The program on June 26 will begin in the afternoon with master classes for seven student string quartets that is open to the public. The evening concert will feature Chris Moore and students of Yarmouth’s 317 Maine Community Center in original songs inspired by Shaker music.

Another free event on June 27 will be a class by the Maine Shape Note Singers on interpretation of shape-note music, followed by a sing-along from the oldest shape-note classic, “The Sacred Harp.” Shape notes were used in early American hymnals in lieu of written-out musical scores, to aid in harmonization of the melody.

The closing festival concert on the evening of June 27 will include guest cellist Philip Boulanger in a Quartettsatz by Schubert, the Quartet No.1, “American Dreams,” by Peter Schickele and Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59, No. 3.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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