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August 17 - August 24, 2000

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Maine-bred musicians at
Portland Chamber Music Festival

by Doug Hubley

JIGGIDY JIG: (from top) Peter Askim, Celeste-Marie Roy, and Jennifer Elowitch.

We can say with certainty that the diaspora of young classical musicians from Maine reaches all the way from Hawaii to Switzerland. We know this because of the Portland Chamber Music Festival: of the 18 musicians performing in the festival, three grew up in Maine, but none lives here. Instead they live in Honolulu, Geneva, and the Boston area.

Bassist Peter Askim, bassoonist Celeste-Marie Roy, and Jennifer Elowitch, a violinist who co-founded the festival, each keep a foot in Maine. Elowitch, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, still calls Portland home and has staked a major part of her career on the local audience. Askim spends summers here. Roy, on the other hand, is an Auburn native whose life now, she says, is really in Europe.

"I participate in the chamber music festival because it's convenient to visit my father at the same time," says Roy.

On August 24, the three will rendezvous in a piece of music by Beethoven, the Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. Premiered 200 years ago, the Septet is Beethoven's only work for such a large chamber ensemble -- four strings, two woodwinds, and horn. It was a big hit in its day, inspiring Schubert to write an octet that's on the PCMF's August 26 program, and rising to such heights of popularity that the ever-sunny Beethoven all but disowned it. Even today, despite its six-movement length, the Septet is pretty accessible -- or pretty and accessible, a pleasant mix of moods without too much gravity.

Also on that program are Passione Amorosa, a 19th-century duet for basses (!) written by Giovanni Bottesini; and Twilight Music, a 1985 composition for horn, violin, and piano by John Harbison. Such a mix of old, new, familiar, and arcane music is typical for the five-program festival, which begins on August 17 and ends on August 26.

Elowitch, 33, is from Portland. Along with New York pianist Dena Levine, she co-founded the Portland Chamber Music Festival, which debuted in 1994. Elowitch and Levine have musical connections all over the map and are well-established in their own careers. Elowitch, for example, teaches at the Longy School and the New England Conservatory Extension Division, performs with the Boston Symphony, and is assistant principal second violinist for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. For the PCMF, Elowitch and Levine engage musicians who, like them, are talented younger players with strong credentials: principals in major orchestras, members of national-class string quartets.

Hence Askim and Roy, both in their fourth PCMF seasons. Askim, who grew up in Cumberland, is a member of the Honolulu Symphony, a critically acclaimed jazz bassist with names like Don Byron on his resume, and an award-winning composer. Roy, from Auburn, is principal bassoonist with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande ("Orchestra of French Switzerland"), in Geneva. Their Maine roots give Askim and Roy something in common with Elowitch -- and they did all know each other before 1994 -- but their talent gave them the PCMF booking.

Roy's connection to Maine has become the most tenuous and least sentimental. She has been in Geneva since 1997. Her husband is a trombonist who lives in a German town eight hours distant by train. Both work a lot and their time together is scarce and hard-won, making visits Stateside less and less appealing. "Life just takes off, and it takes us to different places," Roy says. "And I think we just grow and settle in a different area. And that's it."

The Honolulu Symphony's season gives Peter Askim the summer months to spend in Maine. In recent years his visits to Cumberland, where his mother lives, have combined relaxation and composing. "Maine is a place where I come and feel at home," he says. "I can really get a lot of creative work done here. In the summers it's beautiful, and I just feel kind of rejuvenated coming back."

Elowitch, unlike Askim and Roy, keeps a tight orbit around Portland year-round, and never lost the desire to keep a musical investment in the city. Her local connections were key to the festival's early survival. Her parents, Rob and Annette Elowitch, have been art dealers in Portland for decades and know everybody who's anybody in local cultural circles. "I'm not convinced [the festival] would have happened if not for the generosity of my family's friends who just took a leap of faith," Elowitch says.

If she could make a living here as she does in Boston, she'd think seriously about moving back. "It still feels like home, definitely," says Elowitch, whose Portland roots go back several generations. "And I think that's different from some adults who don't feel like their childhood place is home.

"Like, I catch myself saying, `I'm going home.' And I haven't lived in Portland since I was 18."

Doug Hubley can be reached at doug.hubley@worldnet.att.net.

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