Concertgoers don’t attend performances primarily in search of classes in music history, but in mainstream classical music programming, those lessons are never far below the surface, for listeners fascinated by the evolution of style.

In that regard, the opening concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’s 25th season – and its last under the direction of its founder, violinist Jennifer Elowitch – was particularly interesting, touching as it did on works from three centuries. But those who attended simply to hear rich-hued, energetic performances found what they were seeking, as well.

The concert Thursday evening at Hannaford Hall began with a Haydn Piano Trio from 1797 and closed with Mendelssohn’s Octet, a work composed only 28 years later, but which already bore the hallmarks of the musical sea change that occurred when Classicism gave way to Romanticism. A relative rarity, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet, heard between them, was composed in 1950 and represents one of the more conservative (and, it turns out, enduring) of the 20th century’s riot of competing styles.

One of the most striking aspects of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E major (Hob. XV:28) is how completely at odds it is with what is often claimed as “the chamber music ideal” of complete equality between the instrumental lines. Despite an opening section in which the piano, violin and cello play a tandem outline of the first movement’s theme, this trio is really a piano work with violin and cello accompaniment and decoration.

Yes, it’s true that Haydn occasionally throws the string players a bone, giving them moments when they have the themes to themselves. But the piano invariably swoops in, taking up those themes and transforming them into grander, more elaborate statements, leaving the strings either to play straight accompaniment or to offer brief rejoinders. It is only in the finale that the three instruments perform together as a solid unit that can pass as a band of equals.

Pianist Rieko Aizawa, violinist Alison Harney and cellist Thomas Kraines gave the trio a warm-toned performance, with Aizawa bringing a sparkling tone and energetic phrasing to the central piano line.


Castelnuovo-Tedesco is largely forgotten today, except among guitarists, who revere him as the composer of one of the first major guitar concertos of modern times and a great many solo works, including a dazzling Tarantella and the colorful “Platero y Yo” suite. But there is a lot more to him than that. A Jewish-Italian composer who wrote reams of piano and chamber works before he fled Italy in 1939 and settled in California, he quickly found work in Hollywood, scoring films including “The Return of the Vampire,” “The Loves of Carmen” and parts of “Gaslight.”

The Guitar Quintet (Op. 143), though less familiar than the Guitar Concerto, is a rugged, often gritty piece. Unlike the Haydn, it is strikingly democratic, with all five instruments having ample time in the spotlight. David Leisner, a superb guitarist (and also an eloquent composer) who is chairman of the guitar department at the Manhattan School of Music, delivered a crisply articulated, sweetly singing account of the guitar line and made its difficult stretches seem almost easy.

He was joined by Elowitch and Sunghae Anna Lim on violins; Christine Grossman, who played the work’s prominent viola lines with a powerful assertiveness, and cellist Peter Stumpf.

All the string players heard in the Haydn and Castelnuovo-Tedesco works, along with violinist Jesse Mills and violist Jessica Thompson, joined forces for the Mendelssohn Octet in E flat major (Op. 20), one of the miracles of the repertory. Mendelssohn composed this sumptuous, melody-rich score when he was only 16, around the same time he composed the dazzling “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture (Op. 21).

Mills, playing the first violin line, had a dicey moment at the start, where it sounded like his desire to give a brisk, passionate account of the irresistible opening line outpaced his ability to do so cleanly; but his playing throughout the rest of the work was faultless, as was that of the full ensemble, which offered an admirably transparent reading of the work’s constantly shifting – and at times, almost orchestral – textures.

In a way, the concert was typical of the variety Elowitch has brought to her programming during her tenure, with rarities or contemporary pieces presented amid familiar repertory staples. It is a sensible and illuminating formula. It will be interesting to see whether Elowitch’s successor, violist Melissa Reardon, maintains that approach or – as new directors typically do – finds a new model to bring the festival into its next era.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

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