A dozen string players powered their way through Dvorák’s Serenade in E major (Op. 22) on Saturday night at Hannaford Hall, closing the final concert of this year’s Portland Chamber Music Festival, and at the same time letting listeners ponder the time-worn adage that less is more.

Dvorák, after all, composed his Serenade as a work for string orchestra, and that is how it is typically performed. But the small ensemble fielded at the festival showed that there is something to be gained in transparency and suppleness when the piece is played by reduced forces.

But it took a few moments to reach that conclusion. If you are used to hearing this lovely work performed by a chamber orchestra, you may have found its graceful opening movement puzzlingly small-sounding here, and lacking the heft yielded by larger cello and bass sections (there were two cellists and one bassist here).

Yet there was something distinctly appealing in the relaxed reading the festival presented. That lack of bass-driven heft also meant a reduction in tension, and while you want a good measure of tension in some works, this Serenade is not that kind of piece. And in the second movement, a waltz, the lighter touch seemed perfect, conveying a combination of elegance, fluidity and intimacy that, to put it in cinematic terms, was the difference between a wide-angle shot of a ballroom filled with dancers and a closeup of a single couple.

For me, that was enough to sweep away doubts about whether the Serenade works as a chamber piece, and with that established, the ensemble’s thoughtful reading of the introspective Larghetto, and its zesty accounts of the Scherzo and finale, seemed just about right.

The concert began with Alban Berg‘s “Seven Early Songs,” a deeply expressive set of pieces composed in the first decade of the 20th century. Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg at the time, and Schoenberg, while grappling with ways to expand on the chromaticism that had already infused the harmonic language of Western music, had not yet developed the 12-tone method that some composers and listeners found revolutionary, and others found deeply alienating.

Berg’s settings of Rilke, Lenau, Hauptmann and other German poets are deeply and satisfyingly sophisticated – angular and densely chromatic at times, but still thoroughly rooted in the emotion-painting worlds of Mahler and Strauss. Soprano Tony Arnold, a singer best known for her performances of new music over her long career, gave these songs nuanced, gently illuminating interpretations, with Diane Walsh providing equally thoughtful accounts of the piano lines, which follow and magnify the texts nearly as much as the vocal writing.

Between the Berg and Dvorák, clarinetist Todd Palmer and a string quartet – violinists Harumi Rhodes and Jennifer Elowitch, violist Carol Rodland and cellist Susannah Chapman – played David Bruce‘s “Gumboots” (2008). Bruce was inspired by the rhythmic stamping-clapping-and-slapping language developed by South African gold miners as a way around prohibitions against speaking while in the mines. The language later gave rise to a dance form, an example of which was shown on a video screen just before the performance.

It was unclear whether Bruce quoted specific rhythms or was simply inspired by them, and went his own way, and it probably doesn’t matter, unless you want to get into a debate about cultural appropriation and whether it helps or hurts the cultures from which such ideas are taken. In the case of “Gumboots,” Bruce is entirely open about his source, and brought attention to a fascinating form (and social history) that many people likely to hear his piece would not have heard about otherwise.

The piece itself is bright-hued and mostly celebratory, but with a range that touches on anger (in the opening movement, with its Kurt Weill-like chord changes) to sheer cartoonishness (in the fourth movement, “Dance 3”). It is couched in a language that is accessible to the point where, with different instrumentation, it could pass as a set of pop pieces; in fact, several of the six movements – especially the third, “Forgotten Boots” – call to mind Paul Simon’s collaborations with African musicians on his “Graceland” album.

The interplay between Palmer’s vivid, sometimes virtuosically flighty clarinet line and the equally lively string figures was a joy throughout.

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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