The Portland Chamber Music Festival, which opened Thursday evening at Hannaford Hall, seems to have a secret desire to be a contemporary music festival. Some of its off-season programming is devoted entirely to new music, and if the festival’s main programs in the summer looked weighted toward the Classical and Romantic canon, new music has a permanent berth: Each program includes three works, with a recent score flanked by repertory classics or, just as often, rarely heard works by familiar composers, including a good representation from the early decades of the 20th century.

Tilting the scale slightly further toward contemporary sensibilities, some of the oldies on this summer’s programs, including works by Edward Elgar, Ernö Dohnányi, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alban Berg, are from the early decades of the 20th century .

The opening concert began on what looked at a glance like familiar ground, with a late work of Mozart. But as Mozart goes, the choice – the Horn Quintet in E-flat major (K. 407) – was strange, even daring. At its heart, after all, is a perilous French horn line, full of chromaticism and brisk figuration, exactly the kind of part likely to come to grief on this notoriously recalcitrant instrument. That’s not a chance you would expect a festival to take as it makes its first impression of the season.

But Jennifer Elowitch, the festival’s founder and artistic director, was clearly confident that hornist Patrick Pridemore could navigate the difficult line. He did more than that. Besides giving an astonishingly accurate reading of this punishing work, Pridemore made the horn line sing.

Pridemore’s dazzling performance was supported by fine-shaped, warm-toned string playing by Elowitch, cellist Brant Taylor and violists Melissa Reardon and Jessica Meyer. Meyer also provided the program’s contemporary work, “But Not Until” (2014), a duet for viola and cello, which she performed with Taylor. In her brief program note, Meyer is vague about her inspiration for the work, describing it only as “a series of ironic interpersonal experiences.” Its title is drawn from David Foster Wallace’s novel, “Infinite Jest,” in which a character observes: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”

Exactly what the “ironic interpersonal experiences” were hardly mattered; you could make up your own. Mostly you were swept quickly into the work’s sound world, a rich, constantly changing fabric.


The violist-composer’s score was thoroughly democratic in the best chamber music tradition, with the cello often contributing high-lying, sweetly lyrical themes, and each instrument supplying a healthy measure of drama. After the intermission, Pridemore and Reardon returned, along with pianist Henry Kramer, clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, violinist Anna Lim and cellist Trevor Handy, to play Ernö Dohnányi’s Sextet in C major (Op. 37), an alternately ominous and humorous 1937 score.

Dohnányi engages fully with his influences here.

The performance had a few turgid moments at the start, but textures became clearer, and accents sharper as the players settled into it. By the time they reached the finale, the ensemble’s balances were near perfect, and its playing sizzled.

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

Twitter: kozinn

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