Maine-bred musicians at
Portland Chamber Music Festival
by Doug Hubley
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.
(from top) Peter Askim, Celeste-Marie Roy, and Jennifer Elowitch.
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
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 email@example.com.