Classic review: the chamber music festival kicks off on a memorable note


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 romance on Thursday night. The 2022 edition of the Portland Chamber Music Festival kicked off with a rich program featuring much of that soulful music from a not-so-bygone era – in terms of continued popularity – of bold musical expression.

The first part of this year’s festival is a showcase for the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), a resident ensemble of 13 musicians, all with impressive CVs, who experience a variety of musical eras and styles. They can significantly inflate the usual petit c’est beau ethos of chamber music events without sacrificing much delicacy. Their subgroups also do it convincingly.

The evening began with a performance of a late work by Richard Strauss. His “String Sextet, Op. 85 de Capriccio” represents a sort of final dive into the waters of a declining compositional approach that struggled with contemporary notions of Impressionism and Modernism.

A sextet comprised of two violins (J. Freivogel, Kobi Malkin), two violas (Melissa Reardon, Jessica Thompson), and two cellos (Kenneth Olsen, Raman Ramakrishnan) created an immersive sonic whirlwind that pushed stylistic boundaries while relishing a elusive sense of beauty through music.

About a century earlier than Strauss’s play, the “Three romances for violin and piano, op. 22.” Susie Park (violin) joined Benjamin Hochman (last minute piano replacement) for a performance of a piece that served to calm things down a bit after what came before.

Schumann’s work, which has received more attention in recent years, evokes a time when simpler musical storytelling took audiences to places they knew and loved without undue complication. Thursday’s partnership succeeded as both players tapped into the period when the romance, seen perhaps wistfully as of 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), have taken a welcome detour into a contemporary work by ECCO-connected composer Michi Wiancko. His ‘Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores for String Quartet’ encompassed an expansive technique in service of an environmental theme that emerged in various ways over its seven brief movements.

The tapping, pinching and strumming within the piece created a sense of imbalance but eventually softened into a few hard-earned harmonies that spoke of a hope still at hand.

Presenting a good selection of the work of Franz Schubert on the occasion of the 225th anniversary of his birth, this year’s festival built on his remarkable, if not unknown, music.

Mostly on their feet and without a conductor, ECCO’s full ensemble filled the Hannaford Stage after intermission for a raucous rendition of “String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, Death and the Maiden ” of the master. The piece, arranged by none other than Gustav Mahler for a large chamber music group, invaded the room with force.

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

One could argue that some of the sheer specificity of the original quartet version is lost in this oversized manifestation. But you wouldn’t guess it could be a problem from the response of the opening night crowd who enthusiastically renewed their standing ovation as the ECCO players appeared in the hall of the venue afterwards.

It was a memorable start for the festival.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer living in Portland.

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