The centerpiece of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’s season finale, Saturday evening at Hannaford Hall, was in some ways the oddest – in an interesting way – of the works the festival presented this summer. Written by Jeremy Flower, a composer born in 1979, the piece is scored for electronics, strings, marimba and piano. It has an alarming title, “Self Destruct,” and according to Flower, it is something of a meta-piece, essentially about the difficulties of its own creation.

As Flower explained, both in his program note and in an onstage introduction, the score was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for its MusicNOW new-music series in 2009. But as the deadline approached, Flower found himself staring at a blank page, as well as a schedule that left little time to work on it (mainly because he was also composing a film score). He completed the work in time, but its title, and the titles of its two movements – “Open Stress Wound” and “Implode” – capture the anxiety he felt during the process.

The strange thing is, the music itself is placid and introspective, most of the time. It scarcely sounds like a portrait of a composer freaking out under pressure. You can find tension if you look for it. The insistent, repeating figures of the marimba line in the first movement could, for example, suggest a ticking clock and the press of time.

But you also wonder whether that tension is really there, or just a product of the power of suggestion, a response to Flower’s narrative. Mostly, you get the impression that Flower focused on writing a pleasantly atmospheric and occasionally pop-influenced indie classical piece for his Chicago patrons, and that when it came time to choose a title, he was unable to separate the music from the anxiety he felt while writing it.

“Self Destruct” is a more self-consciously classical score than many of Flower’s other pieces, 14 of which are collected on a recent recording, “The Real Me.” Steady, slowly morphing, pianissimo electronic tones blend smoothly with the equally soft-voiced viola and cello lines, though these eventually take on lives of their own, often contributing themes (or at least, theme fragments) lovely enough to make a 19th century composer jealous. The marimba and piano lines, when they eventually arise from the hazy backdrop, are sharply defined and push the work forward. Flower’s second movement unfolds similarly, but more decisively, its bright chord progressions and electronic drum loops giving it a pop patina.

As for the title – those often mean less than meets the eye, in classical music. The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki once told me about writing a string orchestra work, in 1960, that he was going to call “8’3 7″,” in the spirit of John Cage. After its first performance, he decided to rename it “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” a title that made the piece an international sensation, even though it had nothing at all to do with Hiroshima.

Flower oversaw the work’s electronic component, and presided over a solid ensemble that included violist Dov Scheindlin, cellists Susannah Chapman and Brant Taylor, pianist Henry Kramer, and marimbist Matthew Gold.

“Self Destruct” was surrounded by a pair of indestructible scores from the standard chamber canon, both given beautifully polished, compelling performances by the excellent players that violinist and artistic director Jennifer Elowitch enlisted for the festival. It shared the first half of the program with Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 (K. 493), in a reading ruled by Kramer’s tactile, shapely piano line, supported by dynamically supple, warm-toned string playing from violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Carol Rodland and cellist Taylor.

After the intermission, Elowitch, Scheindlin, Rodland, Chapman and Taylor were joined by violinist Katherine Fong for an irresistibly lush account of Dvorák’s String Sextet (Op. 48), an alternately joyful and melancholy work rich in the Slavonic dance rhythms that give much of Dvorák’s music its immediately identifiable thumbprint.

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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