I came to the opening concert of the Maine Festival of American Music Wednesday night to hear once again Henry Cowell’s great “United” String Quartet No. 4 (1936), played by the Portland String Quartet.

The quartet had played this work once before, last October, and it was like uncovering a hidden jewel. Cowell (1897-1965) is one of America’s greatest composers, but he was hounded and jailed for homosexual activities, and much of his work was relegated to obscurity.

The performance at the Shaker Meeting House was not quite as good as the earlier one, but it nevertheless revealed new beauties.

Cowell was a master of world musics, using their building blocks of scales and rhythms to construct his own unique edifice. He was also a populist, aiming to make his work understandable and easy to follow by using simple motifs and obvious, but never hackneyed, development.

Detectable in the more recent version was a kind of evolution, although I doubt that Cowell believed in musical “progress.” The work begins in a primitive style and moves through more and more familiar territory until ending in what might be an American march of the future, with nothing militaristic about it.

The second item on the program was a set of improvisations on three Shaker hymn tunes and a couple of Hungarian folk songs by “electroacoustic violinist” Matthew Szemela. Passages on one violin were recorded and replayed on a loop to provide a sort of rhythm section for the next live improvisation on another amplified violin. The reverberations made possible by the amplifier were interesting at first, like the hollow sounds of a didgeridoo, but soon became wearing.

The set seemed to go on forever, with the fiddling becoming more and more devilishly spectacular, all of it an exercise in empty virtuosity. My sanity was restored by the sound of an evening bird call through the open window, reminding me of Messiaen’s dictum that birds are the foremost musicians of the world. Either American audiences are still suckers for showy technique, or the crowd was just glad to get it over with, but the piece was given a standing ovation.

Szemela returned, playing the viola, in a pleasant and sometimes moving rendition of Dvorak’s Viola Quintet in E-flat Major (Opus 97), as “American” as the slightly earlier string quartet with that nickname. The cello part, played by guest artist Patrick Owen, was particularly memorable. The variations on a theme similar to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” in the Largetto, are Dvorak’s answer to the noble development of the anthem in Haydn’s “Emperor” String Quartet.

As usual at the festival, the Portland String Quartet opened the program with its variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” I prefer their version to the better known one by Aaron Copland.

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

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