Because touring musicians who steer clear of Maine in the winter flock here in the summer, chamber music festivals are plentiful, each with a distinct personality. Some are shaped by the mix of performers on hand and the repertory they bring; others pursue specific repertory agendas.

The Seal Bay Festival, which offers concerts in Portland, Brunswick, Belfast, Waterville, Topsham and Yarmouth over a 10-day run (this year’s started on July 10), concentrates on American chamber music, often with Maine composers featured. And because the composers are usually on the festival’s roster, the concerts are only the tip of the iceberg. Between them, more established composers mentor their younger colleagues, and the festival’s musicians rehearse and perform their works, and offer practical advice about performance issues.

The Cassatt String Quartet is the resident ensemble of the Seal Bay Festival. Photo by Anna Ablogina

The festival, in the form of its resident ensemble, the Cassatt String Quartet, and pianist Ursula Oppens, paid its annual visit to Space Gallery on Thursday evening, and presented six new (or, in two cases, newly revised) works. All six composers were on hand to introduce their scores.

An undercurrent of social and political commentary framed the program. In the opener, “Your Questions Online” (2019), Alejandro Rutty muses on the parallel lives we live now, split between our direct interactions in the physical world, and the personalities we project online, where thoughtful or moving comments intermingle with frivolous questions and observations.

The two connected movements of Rutty’s piece, a string quartet, were inspired by a pair of questions posed online by someone who first wonders “How Can They Let Children Die” – a reference to the refugee crisis at our southern border – and later asks, “Where Can I Buy a Disco Ball?” Rutty’s language is consonant and appealing, and he is strongly drawn to pizzicato scoring.

But he also provides the variety you would expect: The first movement is packed with melancholy themes that travel through the full ensemble, with an emphasis on wrenchingly direct cello and viola lines. The second is strongly rhythmic, veering between a mechanistic pummeling that evokes the Disco era and sinuous figures that embrace everything from tarantella-like figures to hints of tango – an argument, in a way, that complexities can thrive beneath even the most frivolous surfaces.

Though generically named, Laura Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet (2018), which closed the program, is a comment on the chaos and brutality of what passes for political discourse in Trump-era America. It is not a broadside, exactly. In “Anthem,” the first movement, Kaminsky has Oppens and the Cassatt players paint a diverse but ambiguous portrait of our time, with chorale-like passages giving way to fleeting touches of Dvorák-like folksiness and then uncompromisingly brusque chordal bursts.

That movement leads to “Lamentation; coming into light,” a plangent movement that touches on extremes of pensiveness and gloom at one end and angry, acerbic energy, captured in both the assertive keyboard writing and tense, often brash, string writing, at the other.

But the real action is in the finale, “Maelstrom, and …” which builds on the second movement’s urgency and tension. Whether by design or coincidence, the movement includes, near the end, a call for help in the form of a full quartet figure etched in three fast, three slow and three fast notes – the rhythm of an S.O.S. in Morse code – on a single tone.

Kaminsky’s ending is ambiguous: A quietly energetic, ascending keyboard burst, in the work’s final seconds, could be taken as a sign of hope. But you could also hear it as a question – specifically, where do we go from here?

Between Rutty’s and Kaminsky’s social commentaries, the program offered thoughtful, if less time-sensitive, meditations. An innocent lyricism was the driving force of Daniel Strong Godfrey’s “Paginula” (2018), a gentle but spirited and attractive score for violin (the Cassatt’s first violinist, Muneko Otani) and piano, as well as Michael Alec Rose’s “Seventh String Quartet – Maine Title: Sun, Sea, Land” (2018). Rose noted that although he lives in Nashville, Tennessee, he has long been fascinated by the landscapes and watercolors of Maine painter John Marin. The quartet, named for one of Marin’s works, is a sweetly harmonized piece, often with surprising melodic turns animating his rich, inviting themes.

The two works by Maine composers were strikingly different. Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Sirens of Sombor” (2008, revised 2019) is an essentially lyrical score, with touches of modernist angularity and, at one point, bluesy figures, tempering its overt Romanticism.

Vineet Shende’s “… and round thy phantom glue my clasping arms” (2004, revised 2019) explores a complex psychological moment, when belief gives way to disillusionment, which in turn leads to reconsideration and growth. Shende’s lightly acidic language, leavened by intriguing themes and a bag of timbral tricks that includes string slides and dynamic swells, as well as stark contrasts between murky string backdrops and sparkling keyboard lines, is perfectly suited to the task.

Reviews of all-contemporary programs invariably focus more on the works than the performances, but the difficulty of playing them persuasively should not be underestimated. The Cassatts and Oppens are experienced hands at this, and it would be hard to imagine these works played more eloquently.

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


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