Category Archives: Reviews

DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

MIdcoast Symphony Presents a Truly Operatic Verdi “Requiem”

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Verdi “Requiem”
Franco Center, Lewiston-Auburn
May 14, 2016

Producing Verdi’s “Requiem” is aways a major undertaking, but the Midcoast Symphony under Rohan Smith, the Oratorio Chorale, Vox Nova and a fine cast of soloists carried it off in great style Saturday night at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

The full-length mass was sung without intermission before a full house, the largest audience I have seen for a Midcoast concert at this venue. The performance rightly emphasized the operatic nature of the work.

What never ceases to surprise me about the Midcoast is the caliber of soloists it attracts with regularity. Saturday’s vocalists, who play a star role in the operatic Mass, were no exceptions. They were Rachele Schmiege, soprano, Rebecca Ringle, alto, Kevin Ray, tenor, and Gustav Andreassen, bass. (Really good basses must be named Gustav or Boris.)

All were outstanding, but Verdi’s favorite in this work is the soprano, who gets all the good parts after the final Dies Irae, often seeming to be arguing successfully with God. Schmeige has the power and clarity to soar effortlessly above the full orchestra and two of Maine’s best choirs.

Speaking of choirs, it often appears to be a waste of talent to write the score for two; it is so difficult to distinguish the parts that the composer might as well have specified one large chorus. That is until the great fugue (also after the Dies Irae) in which Vox Nova and the Oratorio Chorale plainly distinguish themselves as separate voices. It makes the whole thing worthwhile.

For the other choral sections, it might help to separate the choirs physically, but that doesn’t seem possible within the limited stage space at the Franco Center.

The orchestral part of the Requiem is ideal for an amateur ensemble, but the Midcoast sounded anything but. The balance of forces was near-perfect. The visions of Hell in the Dies Irae were effective, as were the trumpet calls from the rear of that hall in the Tuba mirum, which startled some of the audience members. One child put his hands over his ears like the young Mozart at the sound of a trumpet.

The pause half-way through, to allow orchestra members to re-tune, was a mistake. It broke their concentration and there were a few sour noes afterward, but only for a measure or two.

All-in-all, it was a grand effort, surpassing a professional performance here a few years ago, and well deserved its standing ovation and curtain calls.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland Symphony Plays a Memorable Fifth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Are there any undiscovered masterpieces? There may be, but if so, they are few and far between. The vast majority of music vanishes after its first performance, if any, and is relegated to the archives, where it languishes until “rediscovered,” only to vanish again.

These unoriginal musings were prompted by the performance at Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night of Erich Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major (Op. 35) by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody,

Korngold is best known as an Oscar-winning composer of movie music, although he began his career as a child prodigy turned composer in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic).

The orchestra gave the work its best effort, and the soloist, Christoph Koncz, knows film music inside and out, having played the hero in “The Red Violin.” Still, through the entire performance, I was picturing scenes from “Schindler’s List.”

Was it merely association of the composer with cinematography? Doesn’t all music conjure up images of some kind?

Not necessarily. (See Beethoven’s Fifth below.) Korngold, however, seems to be playing to the audience and calculating the effect of the scene, rather than letting the music speak for itself. One result is a lack of passion and self-assertiveness in the violin part.. It was beautifully played by Koncz, but its primary characteristic was a kind of wistful sweetness, pleasant enough, but wearing after a while.

I think it was Rilke who cautioned against journalism if one wanted to be a poet. The former rubs off too much on the latter, and the same thing seems to have happened to Korngold.

Tuesday’s program began with Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture, one of my favorite compositions, played a little too fast and without enough attention to its striking effects. It could be that opera and abstract music don’t mix either.

I have purposely left Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for last because nothing in the world remains to be said about it. It is a towering masterpiece that never loses its freshness, even after being played as a theme song on “Judge Judy.” One begins by admiring all the permutations of the “V” for Victory motif and ends in absolute awe and sometimes transfiguration.

As in all of its performances so far of the Beethoven cycle, the orchestra played above itself in every respect, earning a tumultuous standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

USM Singers Excel in “Coronation of Poppea”

“The Coronation of Poppea”
USM School of Music
Corthell Hall, Gorham Campus
April 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, “The Coronation of Poppea,” (1643) seems strangely relevant today—a dissolute court indulging in trivial, illicit affairs while Rome burns, a pre-eminent poet and philosopher “half in love with easeful death,” and an amoral, petulant child in charge of an empire. “So, Marcus, what else is new?”

Sunday afternoon’s production of the opera, by Ellen Chickering, with the entire cast, save one, undergraduate students at the USM School of Music, was remarkable. It was accompanied by Tina Davis, harpsichord and Scott Wheately, ritornello, who admirably filled the role of the baroque instruments indicated by the composer.

The plot involves the seduction of the Emperor Nero by Poppea, circa 100 AD, and her coronation after the disposal of Nero’s former wife, Ottavia. The thesis, stated in the prologue, is the triumph of the god, or goddess of love, Amor, over both fortune and virtue.

Nora Cronin, with fake wings and ability at Karate, was excellent as the mischievous Amor, who protects Poppea from an assassin, Ottone, her former lover, sent by Ottavia in a futile attempt to save her marriage. (Amor quickly disarms him of a dagger and threatens to call down the lightening.)

The role of Poppea, sung by Cathryn Mathews, was well matched by Rhiannon Vonder Haar as Nerone, with just enough difference in timbre and pitch to contrast delightfully in their final duet, the most famous of the opera. A good actor as well, she manages to seem ambiguous about the balance between love and ambition, gazing at the golden crown rather than her lover in the finale

Vonder Haar managed to portray the young Nero as a spoiled but sometimes affectionate brat, who turns in an instant against his tutor, Seneca, and has no compunction about setting his wife adrift in a wooden boat. Ottavia was sung with an admixture of sadness, desperation and the viciousness of a cornered rat by Helena Crothers-Villers.

The opera could equally be entitled “The Death of Seneca,” since it comes alive when Seneca, played by bass-baritone Matthew LaBerge, says farewell to his friends and disciples. Their trio—Teremy Garen, Logan MacDonald and Thomas Hanlon—is one of the high points of the opera.

LaBerge has a powerful, deep voice and the ability to hit the lowest of low notes on “for” in “The death I long for.” His pitch was a little off at times in the intricate ornaments Monteverdi loved, which become more difficult the further down the scale one goes. I would like to hear him as the Hermit in “Der Freischutz,” or anything by Mussorgsky.

The secondary roles were also well sung, often stealing the show. Rachel Shukan as Drusilla, Lady-in-Waiting to Ottavia and Ottone’s former lover, was radiant in her joyful aria welcoming Ottone back. As for aiding him in a little murder, no problem.

James Brown, as Amalta, Poppea’s frumpy nurse, was the epitome of practicality, trying to discourage her charge from overly ambitious plans. Their duet, when Poppea sings “Fighting for me, the God of Love,” over Amalta’s cautions, was another high point in the performance.

And one can’t forget Kiersten Curtis, playing the Goddess of Fortune in the prologue and the Goddess of Premonitions, Pallade, who appears to Seneca before his death, looking like Whistler’s “Study in White,” and singing the way one imagines a goddess would.

If I were producing “The Coronation of Poppea” tomorrow, I would try to cut the exposition a little, and would have it sung in Italian. Little of the meaning would be lost and the music would match the phrasing of the language more exactly. The English translation sometimes led to unintentional humor, or maybe it was just the youthful high spirits of the performers. They earned a standing ovation with flowers.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters”

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 23
by Christopher Hyda

It’s a good thing that the form of synesthesia which unites music with visual imagery is rare. Otherwise Leoš Janáček’s great String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) could not be performed in public, except perhaps with an “adults only” warning.

The work, lovingly rendered by the Portland String Quartet, April 23 at Woodfords Congregational Church, depicts, in four passionate movements, the affair of the aged composer with a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married.

In his always astute program notes, Will Herz suggests that the affair was platonic. If the music itself is any indication, I tend to doubt that (generally accepted) opinion.

The quartet is brimming with wondrous melodies, like Borodin’s but a bit harder to whistle. Most of them are derived from an intricate system of correspondences involving the names of the protagonists, their dates of birth, and numerous other numerical and linguistic sources. (I am indebted to composer Elliott Schwartz’ analysis of these in a lecture he gave in Brunswick a few years ago.)

Another characteristic of the music is the use of speech patterns and inflections to shape its phrases. In some of them one can almost make out the words, such as “the beautiful Madame so-and-so.” The example is in English, but I’m sure that anyone who knows the language(s) of the former Czechoslovakia would recognize many more.

One of my favorite passages in all opera is the speech-song uttered by the young frog at the conclusion of Janáček’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” The pantheism of that opera is also evident in the quartet, in which natural sounds, such as bird song, are employed to express the lovers’ most joyful moments.

All of these beauties and more were brought out by the quartet, in one of its most striking performances of the season. Its new cellist, Patrick Owen, was vital to the amorous depictions.

The program began with Stravinsky’s seven-minute Concertino for String Quartet (1920), generally conceded to be the first work of his “neoclassical” period. It was always an ill fit, and the Concertino is schizophrenic, driving rhythms contrasted with antique dance forms, lyrical passages written in dissonant harmonies, and so on. At the very end, Stravinsky seems actually to be flirting with a tonic resolution until he decides not to go there and ends up in the air.

The afternoon finished with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, plain vanilla after what had gone before, but a charming and light-hearted chaser for such strong drink. An enduring characteristic of the PSQ has been its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. In the first movement one could almost see Mendelssohn deciding what to do next with his theme. My note was: ”They show how it works.”

The final Presto con brio (alla tarantella) brought the audience to its feet.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

It’s Magic: Portland Ovations Materializes The Illusionists

The Illusionists
Merrill Auditorium
April 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations’ blockbuster event, The Illusionists (April 15 and 16 at Merrill Auditorium), brought together some of today’s most popular magicians in a show that was… well, magical. Like most other people, I enjoy magic tricks, so I went without intending to write a review, simply to be amused and mystified.

The show did all that and more —The Trickster, Jeff Hobson, is also a great comedian, with an amazing ability to pull straight men out of the audience—but I was also impressed by how much of a role music played in the performance. The program even lists the company’s composer, Evan Jolly.

A lot of it, emanating from a control room that looked like the command center of a nuclear submarine, was way too loud, but the volume only added to the effects, the first of which was that primary skill of the magician, mis-direction.

The second was to create a rainbow of atmospheric and emotional effects, including extreme tension, martial arts, wistfulness, including a not-too-bad piano rendition of “Claire de Lune,” macabre humor, for Dan Sperry, the Anti-Conjurer, whose persona is a spaced-out zombie with a hipster attitude, circus music, and finally, a sense of wonder, at the final snowstorm created out of a paper napkin by The Inventor (Kevin James).

If there had been an elephant to disappear on stage, Jolly would have come up with an appropriate score.

It was all very effective, especially as Andrew Basso (The Escapologist) struggled, submerged for two-and-a-half minutes, to free himself from a water-filled tank, like Houdini.

One thing about the performance concerned me for the future of magic, and that was the portrayal of the action on a huge screen above the stage. The image was so colorful, clear and sharp, that it took one’s eyes away from what was happening live just below it.

I know, more mis-direction, plus the ability to let everyone in a large auditorium see the action.

However, to an audience accustomed to movie and video special effects, what happens on a screen is often absent the sense of wonder, since any illusion can be accomplished electronically with the push of a button. Magic, like music, is best experienced live.

The beauty of live magic is that it restores, without computers or other paraphernalia, a sense of wonder at what man or woman can accomplish unaided.

What we do now without thinking about it—- fly through the air on metal birds, or converse face to face with magicians in other countries– would have gotten our not-so-distant ancestors burned at the stake. But we’re not doing it ourselves, and, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we don’t even know how it works.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@nescape.net.

A Symphony Worth Standing For

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Apr. 12, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Audiences at Merrill Auditorium are notorious for giving standing ovations to solo performers, deserved or not, but not so much to symphonies. On Tuesday night, the custom was reversed.

Portland Symphony Orchestra principal hornist John Boden’s fine performance of the Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received sustained applause, but no cheers. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Op. 64) concluded with the most riotous, shouting ovation that I have heard in years.

The difference was guest conductor Stefan Vladar, who plays the orchestra like a giant Bösendorfer, (formerly the world’s largest and most prestigious piano). Vladar brings the passion,elegance and grace under pressure of a concert pianist to the role of conductor. His disciplined energy was evident from the first bars of the Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26.

Vladar transformed an atmospheric work that often seems like plain vanilla into an exciting panorama that mirrored the young composer’s fascination with the changing vistas of the rocky Scottish coast. The secret was dynamic contrasts in volume and texture, and from agitato to dolcissimo and back again, over a strong, precise rhythm.

As a veteran of many hard-fought battles between pianist and conductor, he is also very good at supporting a soloist, as shown by the fine balance of the Hindemith concerto. That composer’s unusual orchestration, such as horn against piccolo and the final susurrations and conversation among equals of the finale, were brought out effectively.

Following intermission, one felt a little anxious for Boden who, after a grueling concerto, returned for one of the most exposed horn solos in the repertoire, the opening of the andante cantabile in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Like everything else in this stellar performance, it went off without a hitch.

The symphony was a perfect testimonial, if one is needed, to the necessity of live music. From the beginning clarinets which, after the opening measures return as a delicate obligato to the principal theme, to Boden’s horn calls, there emerged a multitude of fine details that could never be heard in a recording. And the final, titanic clash between the evil “X” and the life force, would have blown every speaker in the house, if the volume could ever have been turned up that high.

Somewhat too exciting for a young girl…but worthy of a sustained uproar, every section of a great orchestra performing in an exalted state.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Definitive Performances By Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I wondered how Portland Ovations had managed to attract such a large audience to Hannaford Hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As soon as I heard the first bars of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (Op. 16), it all became clear. These people must have heard artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center before, and knew that the afternoon’s performances would define what to listen for in years too come.

The Society comprises prominent musicians from around the world, who collaborate as trios, quartets, chamber orchestras or other ensembles to perform works from the entire chamber music repertoire. Appearing under the auspices of Portland Ovations were: Gilles Vonsattel, piano, Arnaud Sussmann , violin, Paul Neubauer, viola and Paul Watkins, cello.

They played a program centered around the Dvorák Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, including works that influenced or were influenced by that seminal composition. And what playing. They might have been together for a century to have developed such a degree of coordination. One could see them smiling at each other when listening for the beats that would define a microtone of pitch differential.

The early Beethoven quartet was simply gorgeous, perhaps more melodic and easily accessible on first hearing than his later works. One could see why Dvorak might have loved it.

Everything about the performance was almost perfect—the balance between instruments, precise entrances and phrase endings (the latter more difficult than anything else), dynamics, lyrical singing tones where appropriate, and so on, but most compelling was the sheer joy of playing. The overall impression was one of confidence and solidity, forming the basis of free expression. And they retuned between every movement.

After the Beethoven came the Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10, written by Ernõ Dohnányi in 1902, and making even greater use of folk motifs than Dvorák. While not in the same league as the Beethoven quartet, it was fascinating in its innovations, beginning with a melody over a bagpipe drone in the first bars, and ending with a strong sforzando. Its tonal ambiguity made one realize just how much folk music provided a doorway to atonality.

Too much perfection is inhuman, so I was happy to hear a single wrong note from the piano during the passionate opening movement of the Dvorak piano quartet. (Maybe he did it on purpose.) The rest was a definitive rendering of one of the most melodic works in the repertoire.

Sometimes it was bit too lush, as in the best known and repetitive melodic passages, accompanied by a treble piano obligato. It conjured up memories of the Plaza Palm Court and its strolling musicians. But that was the fault of the composer, not his interpreters.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Celebration at Back Cove Honors Elliott Schwartz

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 8, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There are several reasons to attend today’s concerts of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church.

One is to celebrate the 80th birthday of Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz.

Two is to hear a wide selection of the best contemporary music, which, no matter what you think of it, is unfailingly interesting, even to children.

Three is to obtain a copy of an Elliott Schwartz Festschrift (celebration writing), which contains 30 short musical scores by a Who’s Who of modern composers, many of them playable by any moderately accomplished pianist, and some by anyone with no musical skills whatsoever. At $10.00 it is an absolute steal.

All of the miniatures in the book, based on a tone row built from the letters of the composer’s name, are being premiered at the festival, now in its 8th annual session under the auspices of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The opening night of the festival, on Friday, offered a highly varied selection of works, from improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” through some characteristic Elliott Schwartz compositions, to the latest in audio-visual and electronic music.

It began with a pensive “Blue Prelude” on the organ by Harold lStover, evoking the Art Deco era of New York, and sometimes proving, like Fats Waller’s work, that the ponderous instrument can dance.

It was followed by an appropriately soothing (and sometimes growling) Lullaby for contrabass and piano, played by the composer, Joshua DeScherer, and pianist Jesse Feinberg, calling up images of waves and swaying grass.

Feinberg returned with pianist Gregory Hall for Improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” which floated on a veritable cloud of notes, using “templates” published by Hall. The templates are like a jazz pianist’s cheat sheets written by Einstein. They contain information about melodies, keys, scales and chord progressions, among other indications, and enabled the two musicians to coordinate their playing perfectly. I am not a fan of electronic pianos, but in this case the contrasting sounds of a keyboard and a concert grand provided sonic variety in a virtuoso performance.

“Cycles” by Jonathan Hallstrom, combined projected images of emerging biomorphic forms with an electronic score that made one think of alligators in a swamp with peep frogs—delicious—as was Bill Matthews’ totally acoustical “Island” for stereo loudspeakers, a perfectly executed tribute to the soundscape of the Maine coast.

“small hands”(sic) by Frank Mauceri, digital video generation, and Macief Walczak, saxophone and digital signal processing, concluded the program on a somewhat disturbing note, whether or not the piece refers to a subject of the recent political debates. The composers describe it as a depiction of “the collective anxiety of living in a society organized in contradiction to our needs.”

Schwartz himself was represented by two characteristic works, his Prelude, Memorial and Aria, written for the memorial service of his friend, Ezra Lamdin, and “Dialog No. 1,” composed circa 1970 for bass player Bertram Turetsky.

Both are masterpieces, in different ways. The first, for cello and piano, begins as a cello solo interrupted by the piano, which eventually takes over, progresses through an interlude based on Lambdin’s age, (Nine by Nine), and ends with a waltz that although abbreviated, ranks with Ravel’s. The piece progresses from an unembellished “modern” style to end in a comforting tonality. It was lovingly played by Feinberg and Philip Carlsen, cello.

The composer’s noted sense of humor comes out in “Dialog No.1,” played by DeScherer. The dialog is between the musician and his instrument, and involves shouts, muttering, drumming, slaps and physical contortions, as well as some virtuoso playing, until the two resolve their differences.

What one will come away with from any of the concerts is an expanded awareness of what is happening in music today, and a better sense of Schwartz’ contribution to almost every aspect of the art.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.