Jennifer Elowitch is ready to rock.

“When I planned the program, the idea of a celebration was at the center of my mind,” said the soon-to-retire artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. “We are going to have a rocking celebration. I want people to attend and be like, ‘Yeah, I had a blast.’ So we are going to rock.”

Elowitch, a displaced daughter of Portland now living in Massachusetts, is leaving the festival 25 years after she co-founded it with her musician friend, Dena Levine. Levine departed several years ago, so Elowitch’s decision to step down as music director will leave the festival without either of its originators. Her replacement, Melissa Reardon, will play at this year’s festival, and they will perform together in the festival’s final concert as a symbolic passing of the torch.

Elowitch, a violinist, is surprised she is not feeling sad, an emotion she assumed would come in waves as she approached her final season. “I am feeling very ready to have this transition, and I am excited that I still get to play one more season,” she said. “My main goal was that the festival would continue beyond me. Once I realized it was going to go on beyond me and the board had made such a good choice in my successor, I stopped being sad.”

Now she’s just feeling excited – and will allow room for sentimentality and sadness when the two-week festival winds down.

Jenny Elowitch, at home in Natick, MA, retires after this season as artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. She co-founded the festival 25 years ago.

Elowitch, 51, has been synonymous with the festival since its founding. She grew up in Portland’s West End, the daughter of Rob and Annette Elowitch, themselves both deeply entrenched in Portland’s visual and performing arts scenes. Their daughter showed musical promise and expressed a desire to play violin in first grade. They provided lessons for her, first in Portland, and later, when she was 11, they arranged for her to study at the New England Conservatory’s prep program in Boston.


For this year’s festival, she planned concerts that represent her values around new music, the classical canon and the essence of music-making that made her want to be a musician in the first place. In other words, it’s supposed to be fun. In a quarter-century, the festival has established its character for being friendly to musicians, who stay with local families, eat lots of lobster and go on harbor cruises. It’s also popular with audiences, who often get the chance to interact with the musicians.

Elowitch was 26 when she and Levine launched the festival. They did so after spending summers driving around the Northeast to teach. Hanging out with other musicians, they heard a common refrain: Everyone wanted to play chamber music, but the opportunity to do so with teaching responsibilities and other obligations was limited. Wouldn’t it be fun if she could start a festival in Portland and bring all of her friends to town to play some music while cavorting on the Maine coast?

“We decided to build the festival around that dream, where people could come to this oasis for two weeks and be friends and collaborate and make music,” Levine recalled.

Levine lived in New York, and Elowitch lived in Boston. They hashed out their vision for the festival on a long drive from Vermont in 1993 and began the festival the following summer. They benefited from youthful energy. “We worked very fast,” said Levine, who stepped away from the festival after 17 seasons. “We laughed about the intensity with which we would work. I would take the Delta shuttle from New York, she would pick me up at the airport, and we’d drive for two hours to Portland for a board meeting, and then drive back.”

Levine recalls the early days of the festival as exhilarating. “You’re just shy of these years when you’re about to have serious adult responsibilities,” she said.

Elowitch’s parents set the tone for the festival from the beginning by hosting and feeding musicians in their West End home, and opening it up for rehearsals. They also entertained them, offering boat rides and personal Portland experiences. They’ve since moved from their spacious West End home, but remain active as festival ambassadors.


Jenny Elowitch, at home in Natick, Massachusetts.

Elowitch worked hard, especially in the early years, to make the sure the festival didn’t focus too much on her. She’s played at almost every festival concert, but almost always in the ensemble. She is the host, not the star, she said. “It’s never been a chance to show off me. I have never been like that as a player. It’s not my priority,” she said. “Especially this year, I am here to express my gratitude to the audience and the musicians, musically and emotionally.”

Clarinetist Todd Palmer has performed at the festival each year but one, and he will be back this summer. He’s observed very little change in the festival over time, which pleases him greatly. “One thing that has been an enduring factor of the festival is that what Jenny originally visioned continues to this day. Why not have a festival where you can play music with your friends? Even if we didn’t know each other, we got along,” Palmer said.

As a musician who is accustomed to hotels and restaurants, Palmer appreciates the personal touch of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. Host families and other festival patrons create camaraderie among the players and familiarity with the community. That does not happen at other festivals, Palmer said.

“I can’t think of another festival where those things are done regularly. There might be a special dinner for the artists, but it’s not every evening. That keeps it more like family, which is how it began. We all stayed at Jenny’s parents’ house and had meals there and practiced there. It’s grown since then, but not tremendously.”

Throughout the festival’s history, Elowitch has moved twice – back to Maine from the Boston area, and then back to Massachusetts. She now lives in Natick with her husband and kids, and works as music director at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, also in Natick. When not teaching and playing in Portland, she performs with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and has played with the Boston Symphony, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music and the Fromm Players at Harvard, and was a longtime member of the Emmanuel Chamber Orchestra. She graduated from the Eastman and Yale music schools.

Cellist Andrew Mark met Elowitch in the 1990s in Boston chamber music circles. He lives outside of Boston and has made the trek to perform in Portland several times. He has a second house on a lake in Acton, west of Portland, so the festival is particularly appealing to him because it gives him the chance to visit his lake home while making music.


He also loves playing new music and applauds Elowitch for her commitment to presenting contemporary music and inviting composers to come to Portland to talk about their work. As a musician, he finds the challenge of performing a new piece of music rewarding. “If you are doing Beethoven or a traditional piece, you have years and years of the greatest artists and their recordings, and you are constantly critiquing yourself and comparing your performance to those other artists,” Mark said. “With a brand new piece that does not have a history of performance, you have the freedom to create your own first, great performance of it. I find that very liberating as a musician.”

For this year’s festival, Elo- witch has planned programs that include her favorite music; pieces that audience members have said they would like to hear again; and three Maine premieres, including one piece in the festival’s final concert on Aug. 18 commissioned in honor of Elowitch. All concerts will be at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

On opening night Thursday, festival musicians will perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet, a perennial top-10 piece among chamber musicians because of its energy. Tim Summers, who wrote the program notes for the concert, said the piece, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was 16, “seems to be powered by water, sun, melody or some sort of palpable joy.” Elowitch and Levine included the Mendelssohn Octet in the festival’s inaugural concert in August 1994, when musicians performed at Ludcke Auditorium on the University of New England’s Portland campus. Three of the four violinists who performed at the 1994 concert will perform at this one, including Elowitch; Alison Harney, second violinist with the St. Louis Symphony; and Sunghae Anna Lim, who performs with the New Millennial Ensemble and lives in New Jersey. “It’s like coming full circle,” Elo- witch said. “These are women who have had a big impact on longtime audience members. It’s fun to be able to bring them back.

The concert on Saturday will include music by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla written for guitar and cello. It’s unusual for a chamber festival to feature a guitarist, Elowitch said, making it all the more enticing to her. Elowitch recruited the classical guitarist and composer David Leisner, who has adapted Falla’s original score for “Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas,” or “Seven Popular Spanish Songs,” written in 1914. Leisner also is making a return trip to the festival to perform this year.

The Saturday concert also includes the first of three Maine premieres, James Primosch’s Quintet for Oboe, Strings and Piano. The Portland festival co-commissioned the piece with Winsor Music, a Massachusetts chamber music ensemble founded by oboist Peggy Pearson, a longtime friend of and collaborator with Elowitch. Pearson has performed at the Portland festival about 15 times and, in association with Winsor Music, is responsible for creating a large repertoire of new chamber music for the oboe.

The other Maine premieres anchor the festival’s second week, with concerts on Aug. 16 and Aug. 18. The Aug. 16 concert includes a new piece by David Ludwig, “Paganiniana,” for solo violin. This piece is a co-commission with festivals in Vermont, Rhode Island and New York. The board of the Portland Chamber Music Festival wanted to commission a work in Elowitch’s honor and collaborated with the other festivals for reasons of economy. Elowitch is playing in the ensemble, not as soloist. That task goes to her friend David McCarroll. “I think he’s incredible, and I want to hear him play it,” she said.


On the festival’s closing night, Aug. 18, the concert’s first half represents “one of the most ambitious” pieces of new music the festival has attempted, a piece called “A Forest Unfolding,” also a co-commission, this one with Electric Earth Concerts in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Novelist Richard Powers helped lead a collaborative creative team of four composers, four writers and an ensemble of instrumentalists and singers. Powers writes books about evolving science and technology and their impact on the world. “A Forest Unfolding” draws its inspiration from recent scientific research into the rich communication and subterranean connectivity among trees.

Four writers – Powers and fellow novelist Kim Stanley Robinson and the environmental writers Bill McKibben and Joan Maloof – chose prose and poems about interactions among people and trees, and passed those writings on to four composers, who set the words to music. The composers were Eric Moe, Melinda Wagner, Stephen Jaffe and David Kirkland Garner. Together, they attempted to create a narrative that tells a story about man and nature. Powers will narrate the piece.

“It’s pretty interesting, and it’s totally new,” Elowitch said, noting that Electric Earth will debut the piece on Aug. 12 with some of the same musicians who will perform it a week later in Portland. “It’s pretty ambitious for our final concert, and it represents me and my priorities – new music, collaboration and an exploration of new thinking. You will be hearing stuff you’ve never heard, and that just doesn’t happen very much at festivals anymore.”

The last piece of the final concert will put Elowitch at center stage with her successor, Reardon, alongside. With other musicians, they will perform Dvorak’s String Quintet “American,” which he wrote in Iowa in 1893.

It’s a beautiful piece of music, Elowitch said, and she included it as the final piece of her final festival as artistic director because it felt like a gift to her successor, to the audience and to the musicians.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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