Though he died in 2016, Elliott Schwartz remains Maine’s most influential contemporary composer, not least because so many younger composers were among his students. To celebrate what would have been his 84th birthday, Philip Carlsen, the composer who succeeded Schwartz as director of the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, put together a concert.

As a composer who was always seeking new sounds and new ways to present familiar ones, Schwartz probably would have been amused by the inherent zaniness of the Elliott Schwartz Memorial Practice Room Project, which Carlsen presented on Saturday evening at the Conservatory. It involved commissioning nine composers to write works for up to eight pianos (most used all eight), and to have eight pianists perform them, each playing a piano in one of the eight practice rooms on the Conservatory’s third floor. The audience sat, stood or milled around in the hallway, taking in the sound of the eight simultaneously played pianos.

There were logistical issues, and technological solutions. To keep eight pianists who couldn’t see each other in synch, for example, Carlsen had them set the timers on their smartphones, and composers provided time-based cues in their scores.

Francis Kayali’s “The Voyage of the Back Cove Fleet” proceeds from the composer’s image of eight pianos as akin to a fleet, or a pod of whales, and draws on a broad variety of techniques, from clusters, to extended tremolos, to rising glissandos and even some vocalization. But its spirit is fairly gentle, and invitingly lyrical at times. Like all the works that followed, it benefited from the spatial effect of different sounds coming from rooms up and down the hallway, but as the first work on the program, it benefited most from the freshness of surround-sound effect.

Josh Jandreau’s “Curving Flowers Shimmering Fire” begins with the pianists playing a single note, and expanding outward. It has an attractive dreamscape quality, and often draws on Impressionistic techniques that evoke – or at least, hint at – the sound of distant waves, or a gently rolling stream.

Harold Stover’s “The Voyager Rag” covers a lot of ground, starting as it does with a 12-tone row in the bass, then toying with contrasting styles in the foreground and in the distance, in the manner of Charles Ives, and ending with full-throttle ragtime figuration that thoroughly evokes the style and its era.

Miho Sasaki provided a “chance” score, in which randomness plays a role. Each player is given a page of one of Sasaki’s previous piano works, and has six minutes to play through it (while the audience listens) before all the pages are played simultaneously. For anyone who has spent time at a conservatory, it brought back memories of walking past practice rooms and taking in the cacophony of pianists working on different pieces, oblivious to what’s going on in the practice rooms around them.

That was even more the case in Carlsen’s “Dem ESCHART von Brunswick gewidmet,” which mixes original passages based on a musical rendering of Schwartz’s name, with quotations from a handful of Beethoven pieces.

Bill Matthews wrote some audience involvement into his “Aviary.” The piano score weaves together Matthews’ renderings of specific bird calls – seven of them, including the red-breasted morningbird, the grass-green wren and the whiskered thrush. Because the pianists played these at will (between time cues given in the score), listeners in the hallway could hear identical calls coming from the different rooms at slightly different times, in Gabrieli-like antiphony. But Matthews also posted an electronic score (also with bird calls) on Soundcloud. Listeners were given a QR code to help them access the Soundcloud recordings on their phones, and play them as part of the performance.

Joshua Descherer offered a theatrical piece, “4×3 Rituals to Counteract Contrapuntal Confusion,” for four pianists and four page-turners, who, rather than turning pages, undertook other activities – walking into the hallway and singing, for example, or opening and closing the practice room doors. It also offered a broader social message, its three sections moving from “Competition” to “Collaboration” to “Cooperation.”

In “888” (the name evokes eight pianists playing the piano’s 88 keys), Nancy Gunn provided a consonant score that gives the pianists considerable leeway in matters of repetition and tempo, but also calls for them, at one point, to make the dynamic contrasts as dramatic as possible, increasing the antiphonal effect out in the hallway.

“Psalm of These Days,” by Michael Schelle, closed the program. Schelle’s score is richly chromatic, and dotted with “events,” including striking the strings inside the piano, shouting a word or name from a list provided in the score, and scurrying from the piano to the doorway and making eye contact with listeners. Yet the music, with its increasingly clear references to a psalm setting by Thomas Tallis, was sober and, in the final section, moving.

Musicians often say that they are trying to find fresh ways to present concerts. Here was an ingenious, purpose-built alternative approach that worked beautifully, and drew as large an audience as the space could comfortably hold.

The pianists were Melsen Carlsburg, Bridget Convey, Jesse Feinberg, George Lopez, Gulimina Mahamuti, Chiharu Naruse, Steven Pane and Jim Parakilas.

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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