If there are two areas where Portland’s classical music scene seems strangely anemic, they are the seemingly parallel – but actually connected – universes of early and new music. Both are growth industries, with a strong appeal to young listeners.

Early music, particularly when performed on period instruments, offers a paradoxical combination of novelty and familiarity: The works and composers are sometimes new to modern listeners, but the musical language they are couched in, while sometimes slightly outlandish, is rooted in conventional tonality. And contemporary music, while always a gamble, can be fresh and challenging, when it is at its best, and tells us how the composers who walk among us process the world we live in, sonic and otherwise.

The Portland Conservatory of Music is doing its bit for both ends of the spectrum. It presents the Portland Early Music Festival in the fall, and the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival in the spring. Both are too short – just a weekend, or part of one – and they are woefully underpublicized. But they have the possibility, with some expansion, of becoming an important part of the city’s musical life.

This year’s Back Cove festival, on Friday and Saturday at Woodfords Congregational Church, was a celebration of Elliott Schwartz, who turned 80 in January. Schwartz, Maine’s most prominent composer, was also an essayist and author, and an influential teacher who taught at Bowdoin College for more than four decades. The Back Cove programs included five of his works, as well as pieces mostly by Maine composers, including several of his students. Also on the Saturday afternoon and evening concerts was “The ESCHART Variations,” an unusual collection of chamber miniatures based on a musical motive derived from Schwartz’s name, and commissioned for the occasion.

Other obligations drew me away from the Saturday concerts, but the opening installment, on Friday evening, captured the considerable variety and accomplishment on offer here. Several composers played their own music, starting with Harold Stover, whose organ work, “Blue Prelude,” opened the concert with a quietly intense, nostalgic rumination on the jazz age, with occasional blues moves and chromaticism (and, at one point, a hint of the melody of “Blue Moon”) subtly jostling for the spotlight.

Joshua DeScherer, a contrabassist, played his own “Lullaby,” an attractive blend of pop harmonies (the piano line, played by Jesse Feinberg, often sounded like the accompaniment for a theater song) and mildly angular, arching bass melodies.


DeScherer also played Schwartz’s “Dialogue No. 1,” a solo tour de force that requires not only vigorous, often sharply rhythmic bass playing (mostly bowed, with occasional pizzicato punctuation) but also vocalizations and percussive effects (slapping and tapping the instrument), which DeSherer gamely provided. Feinberg also joined forces with Gregory Hall for a spirited, improvisatory two-piano collaboration, built on the themes and textures of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé,” using improvisation techniques developed by Hall.

Schwartz’s “Prelude, Memorial and Aria,” played by cellist Philip Carlson, with Feinberg at the piano, was the program’s most substantial and satisfying work. Its cello writing is similar to the bass scoring in “Dialogue No. 1,” in the sense that it demands energy, assertiveness and flexibility, with flowing lines that move smoothly between bowing and plucking. But it also makes the most of the cello’s higher range and more expansive palette of timbres and effects, particularly in its bright, inviting finale, “Aria: Michael’s Waltz.”

The program also included three electronic works, an acknowledgment of one of Schwartz’s areas of expertise, having composed in the genre and published a book on the subject, “Electronic Music: A Listener’s Guide” (1973). Jonathan Hallstrom’s “Cycles” is an attractively atmospheric score, matched to a video built of slowly morphing circles. Frank Mauceri’s “Small Hands” had an abstract video component as well, by Maciej Walczak, and mated an aggressive solo saxophone line, played by the composer, to equally rambunctious electronic timbres. (Mauceri’s cryptic program note hinted that the title might be a reference to Donald Trump, but nothing in the music or video made an explicit connection.) And Bill Matthews provided “Island,” a gentle, appealing essay in which processed computer timbres were woven together with ambient sound – birds, water, children’s voices – recorded on Penobscot Bay.

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

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.