Members of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra perform at USM’s Hannaford Hall during the Portland Chamber Music Festival. Photo courtesy of Portland Chamber Music Festival

Hannaford Hall was alive with the sounds of Romanticism on Thursday night. The 2022 edition of the Portland Chamber Music Festival got underway with a rich program containing much of that soulful music from a not-so-bygone – in terms of continued popularity – era of bold musical expression.

The early part of the festival this year is very much a showcase for the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), a resident ensemble of 13 musicians, all with impressive resumes, who know their way around a variety of musical eras and styles. They can significantly pump up the usual small-is-beautiful ethos of chamber music events without sacrificing much delicacy. Their sub-groupings also get it done persuasively.

The evening began with a take on a late-period work by Richard Strauss. His “String Sextet, Op. 85 from Capriccio” represents a sort of last dip in the waters of a waning compositional approach that wrestled with contemporaneous notions of Impressionism and Modernism.

A sextet consisting of two violins (J. Freivogel, Kobi Malkin), two violas (Melissa Reardon, Jessica Thompson), and two cellos (Kenneth Olsen, Raman Ramakrishnan) created an immersive whirl of sound that pushed at stylistic boundaries while still savoring an elusive sense of beauty through music.

From a century or so earlier than the Strauss piece was Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22.” Susie Park (violin) joined Benjamin Hochman (a last-minute substitute on piano) for a performance of a work that served to settle things down a bit after what came before.

Schumann’s work, receiving more attention in recent years, evokes a time when a more straightforward musical storytelling took audiences to places they knew and liked without undue complication. The partnering on Thursday succeeded as both players tapped into the period when Romanticism, as viewed perhaps nostalgically from today, was largely unforced and heartfelt.


The Jupiter Quartet, an ECCO offshoot featuring Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel (violins), Liz Freivogel (viola), and Daniel McDonough (cello), took a welcome detour into a contemporary work by ECCO-connected composer Michi Wiancko. Her “Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores for String Quartet” encompassed extended technique in the service of an environmental theme that emerged in a variety of ways over its seven brief movements.

The tapping, plucking and strumming within the piece created a sense of imbalance but ultimately softened into some hard-won harmonies that evinced a hopefulness still within reach.

Featuring a good selection of the work of Franz Schubert on the occasion of the 225th anniversary of his birth, this year’s festival has grounded itself in his remarkable, if not unfamiliar, music.

Mostly standing and without a conductor, the full ECCO ensemble filled the Hannaford stage after intermission for a boisterous rendition of the master’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, Death and the Maiden.” The piece, arranged by none other than Gustav Mahler for a large chamber group, forcefully took over the room.

Though creating moments of great lyrical beauty, the work is well known for its powerful, haunting passages, and the large ensemble leaned into those intense eruptions of sound with incredible energy.

It could be argued that some of the stark specificity of the original quartet version is lost in this supersized manifestation. But you wouldn’t guess it might be an issue from the response of the opening night crowd that enthusiastically renewed its standing ovation as ECCO players appeared in the lobby of the hall afterward.

It was a memorable start for the festival.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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