The Portland Chamber Music Festival, which opened its 22nd season on Thursday evening at Hannaford Hall, assembles its programs with an elegant symmetry. Each of its four concerts offers three substantial works – two well-traveled repertory classics, along with a recent score by a living composer.

The repertory classics are clearly the lure, but the contemporary pieces seem meant to win converts: The festival has turned to composers who are, generally, post-modernists who favor consonance over dissonance, shapeliness over angularity and the dramatic or pictorial over abstraction. Their works are of a sort likely to make listeners who think they loathe new music reconsider that prejudice.

The festival’s other drawing card is its roster. Like other festivals around Maine, it imports players with sizable reputations from all over the country. The violinist Frank Huang, who will become the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and who spent part of his summer teaching and playing at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was on hand for the opening concert. So was the highly regarded pianist Max Levinson. Later installments will include performances by clarinetist Todd Palmer, flutist Laura Gilbert, harpist Barbara Allen and percussionist James Baker, all mainstays of the New York concert scene. The new work on the opening concert was “Dreams of Rain,” a piano trio by Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, or at least, the first and last of its four movements.

Fletcher, who introduced the piece, said the music was inspired by climate change and its consequences, something he witnessed in a series of visits to Costa Rica starting in 1992. (The work was started that year and completed in 2000.) The first year, Fletcher was in the country during what was supposed to be its rainy season, but which turned out to be a drought that created havoc through the rest of the year, and led to the extinction of a species of indigenous golden toads.

You wouldn’t know that without the composer’s explanation, and perhaps knowing it is beside the point: As the title suggests, the work is a response to the drought, not a depiction of it, and indeed, “Dreams of Rain” opens with an explosive chord, followed by rapid, repeating violin arpeggios that suggest the longed-for rain, rather than the drought. Those arpeggios crop up throughout the piece, in the piano and cello lines as well, surrounding more introspective and appealingly tactile passages that evoke anticipation and, at times, tension. The work’s ending is oddly inconclusive, but dreams often are, and possibly a full reading, with the two middle movements intact, would leave a different impression. The ensemble – Huang, Levinson and Brant Taylor, a cellist from the Chicago Symphony – produced an inconsistent account, lovely and powerful at times, unpolished and raw elsewhere.

The concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Quintet in C (K. 515) – in addition to Huang and Taylor, the performers were Jennifer Elowitch, the festival’s artistic director; Daniel Panner, the violist of the Mendelssohn String Quartet; and Christine Grossman, the principal violist of the Kansas City Symphony – also sounded under-rehearsed, with agreeably light-spirited, transparent passages offset by oddly ponderous stretches.


The dry acoustics at Hannaford Hall did the musicians no favors, but they were able to overcome that problem to a greater degree in the closing work, Dvorak’s supremely lyrical Piano Quintet in A (Op. 81). Here, the violinist Kristin Lee and the cellist Claire Bryant joined Elowitch, Panner and Levinson in a performance that had the right balance of poetry and vigor. Levinson, in particular, was at his most graceful here, a quality his colleagues matched in the nimble Scherzo. And in the work’s more heated moments – in opening movement and, to an even greater degree, in the high-energy finale – the musicians produced a solid, gritty sound and projected an infectious passion.

The Portland Chamber Music Festival runs through Aug. 22 at Hannaford Hall on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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