HARRISON — The Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival opened its 44th season on Tuesday evening at the Deertrees Theater with a program rooted in central Europe – and with what appears to be the smoothest possible administrative shift. Laurie Kennedy, the principal violist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, stepped aside as the festival’s music director at the end of last summer, having led it as a co-director since 1985 and as its sole director since 2000. Kennedy will continue to play at the festival, but she has turned over the directorial responsibilities – which include overseeing both the programming and the artist roster – to Mihae Lee, an accomplished pianist who has been part of the festival’s resident ensemble for the last 21 years.

If a change of direction is in the works, it may be that there are more rarities by well-known composers in the mix than in the past, but although there is a reasonable amount of music from the early and middle of the 20th century, there is nothing hot off the press. The programs do, however, have unifying themes, usually to do with either the composers’ origins or the kinds of instrumental timbres being thrust into the spotlight.

The opening program carried the title “Gypsy Flair.” Classical music is one of the few disciplines to still use the term “gypsy,” which has generally been replaced by the more precise (and politically correct) Roma, or Romani. But in musical terms, changing the terminology does not really work, since “gypsy music” does not really refer to the music of the Roma, but rather, to a kind of fiery, folk-tinged music in which the Roma influence is one of many. For the purposes of this concert, the real source is the rich melting pot of Hungarian and Roumanian folk music. But the definition applies equally to flamenco, which blends Roma and Spanish folk styles.

The works Lee chose for the program all have vivid Hungarian folk roots. Haydn’s Piano Trio in G major (Hob. XV: 25), nicknamed the “Gypsy” Trio because of the zestiness, syncopations and folk-tinged themes of its finale, opened the program. The ensemble – pianist Stephen Manes, violinist Min-Young Kim and cellist Mihai Marica – took a few moments to gel, its work in the slow opening movement never quite catching fire as the players strove for courtliness but often sounded plodding instead. The Poco Adagio second movement fared better, and the finale was the picture of vitality, as it was meant to be.

Bartok’s “Contrasts,” for clarinet, violin and piano, ought to have been the program’s highlight. Bartok composed it for Benny Goodman, and he and Goodman, along with the great violinist Joseph Szigeti, made a spectacular recording of the work in 1940, the year Bartok completed it. Clarinetists love it, and program it often; and violinists and pianists usually enjoy digging into the Hungarian folk themes – the connection to this program’s theme – that Bartok touches upon (and transforms) throughout the score.

But as in the Haydn, the opening movement limped awkwardly for a while before the players – clarinetist Carmelo Galante, with Manes and Kim – settled into Bartok’s alchemy. When they did, the work sparkled, with fleet playing and variegated hues from Galante, rigorous rustic fiddling from Kim and a sharply accented, tightly phrased keyboard performance by Manes.

Thankfully, the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (Op.25), which closed the program, needed no time getting up to speed. From the opening bars, this was a beautifully balanced, fully polished and emotionally rich performance. And it, too, honored the program’s theme: Brahms’ finale, a Rondo alla Zingarese – In the Gypsy Style – takes in the same influences, and moves in much the same way, as the finale of the Haydn. The difference, of course, is that Brahms filtered the folk dances through the prism of mid-19th century Romanticism, where Haydn had configured them to suit the Classical conventions of the 1790s.

The fine ensemble for the Brahms included Kim on violin, Marica on cello, and both the incoming and outgoing directors, Lee on piano and Kennedy on viola.

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

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