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PCMF is living large
A 10th anniversary worth celebrating

Itís a small world, but a big country. If youíre gauging the greatest distance this country spans, Hawaii to Maine would just about do it. Maybe Florida to Alaska is greater, but I doubt it; Iíve flown across country to Hawaii and it is painfully long.

Still, this is the distance composer and Maine native Peter Askim travels every summer when he brings his aloha and comes to play double bass with the Portland Chamber Music Festival, as he has nearly from its inception 10 years ago. This summer, however, he comes not only as bassist, but composer, too.

There have always been composer/bassists it seems, many of them quite good: from Mozartís friend Pischelberger to Domenico Dragonetti. Koussevitzky and Turetzky both wrote for their instruments and commissioned hundreds more works for the bass from other composers.

And today, besides Mr. Askim, there are a whole slew of able-bodied bassists who also compose (and vice-versa!) from Louisvilleís Marc Satterwhite to Nashvilleís Edgar Meyer, the Bottesini of bluegrass. The list of composer/instrumentalists is a longer one for this instrument than any other, I think, except for piano. Perhaps living life closer to those lower fundamental tones enables the imagination to hear the partials float out in the ether above.

The bass has been a large part of Peterís compositional and performing life from his earliest days in Cumberland, Maine, to his schooling at Yale and freelancing in Vienna, to his Hawaiian sojourn. I say "bass." I should qualify. The instrument is usually referred to as double bass or contra bass ó string bass to the rest of us ó to distinguish from the lowest male voice, a point of distinction worth making in a moment when we look at PCMFís other celebrity soloist!

I first met Peter in í96 when he and I shared a program on Hawaii Public Radio: I was teaching at the university and Peter was playing with the Honolulu Symphony, which he had just joined at the ripe age of 25. Entering his eighth season playing with the orchestra on Oahu, Peter also teaches composition at the University of Hawaii and conducts the New Music Ensemble, which I founded there a decade ago.

Still, with such credentials, it is his foundation in jazz and rock that Peter Askim draws upon in his composition. A self-described "post-punk rocker," Askim remembers fondly the Reindeer Rock-Off of Maine high-school bands and finds to this day the impulse oddly similar to what brings him to commit music to the page now as a composer.

"It is the same desire to communicate," says Askim. "Itís a multi-headed beast with the same belly."

His tenth anniversary commission for the PCMF is a nine-minute trio for violin, viola, and bass, in the premiere of which he will also perform. The workís title is "Open . . .," no pun intended, though the allusion to open windows and doors is quite intentional.

Based on a series of paintings by the American Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, the visual and aural art is "spare and textural" with offset mystical rectangles adding to the abstraction "simply but darkly."

Contrary to its description, the musical work is "energetic and forward-moving." Simply put, the composer says, "itís got a good beat and you can dance to it."

Rock on.

While the Askim premiere will open the second week of the festival, the opening concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival will feature the great American baritone Sanford Sylvan singing Ravelís last work, "Don Quichotte á Dulcinée." And while the work is a curiosity, the performance has the makings of a summer gem.

The summer of í97, I had the good fortune to hear the baritone Sanford Sylvan at the Carmel Bach Festival in California. There I had both a religious experience and an invaluable education. 1997, Schubert aficionados may remember, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Schubert, and Sylvan was singing Winterreise, among other great Schubert cycles, with pianist David Breitman. It was heaven!

Afterwards, I made my way back to the stage door to congratulate the singer, and in conversation, let it be known that I, too, was a composer. With the great singerís invitation to see some music, I made my way next evening ó following that summerís Bach Passion with Sylvan as soloist ó back to the stage door with music in hand.

And there, with line growing behind me, Sanford Sylvan went line by line, patiently explaining the subtle differences between the voices of bass and baritone. It was, I consider, a great kindness and an invaluable education.

Which makes the Ravel all the more puzzling as a choice for Sylvanís appearance here. Originally meant for a film based on Cervantes, Ravelís Don Quichotte featured the great Russian bass Shalyapin! This work, incidentally, was the last music Ravel was to complete before his Pickís disease incapacitated him in the last five years of his life.

Regardless, the Ravel will be lovely and a memorable opening to a celebration of a decade of fine music-making by the PCMF. With Askim and Sylvan, PCMF could hardly have done a better job celebrating their 10th anniversary.

Marrying the quintessential young Maine composer and Americaís finest lyric baritone, PCMF is both highlighting and celebrating what is in our own backyard while providing exposure to one of the most superlative interpreters of music anywhere.

Besides his "Great Performances" of Mozart heard and seen on PBS, Sanford Sylvan has met his Figaro and Don Alfonso, with operatic characters cut from current news, in John Adamsís operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Yet, opera aside, his chamber cantata performances of Adamsís "Wound Dresser," and four works of Boston-based composer Charles Fussell (that I am familiar with), including a recent premiere just this past May, are where his gifts truly shine.

His voice floats over colorful combinations of instruments, bringing the most poignant and heart-wrenching text to life in his warm baritone. Sylvanís performance of Fussellís "Being Music," available on Koch, is one of my personal favorites.

Opera, classical and contemporary, and the newest of the new still do not comprise the total picture that is this great artist. His Bach is cherished from Oregon to New England, and his summer festival appearances include Edinburgh, Tanglewood, Vienna, Holland, Schleswig-Holstein, and Ojai.

He has sung with the leading orchestras of the world: New York Phil, Boston Symphony, San Francisco, London, Japan. And his recordings appear on Nonesuch, Koch, Decca, Bridge, Harmonia Mundi, Virgin Classics, and New World Records.

A cursory Yahoo query produced nearly 10,000 hits, all his but for the realtor of Lake Sylvan in Sanford, Florida, and all of them probably fans.

It is a small world after all. And weíre lucky living it as large as we are this summer right here in Maine. íCause Iím telling you, that flight to Honolulu is a killer.

Composer J. Mark Scearce can be reached at scearce@usm.maine.edu

The tenth-anniversary season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival runs August 14 through 23 on the Westbrook College campus of the University of New England, with Sanford Sylvan opening the festival August 14 and Peter Askimís premiere August 21. Call (800) 320-0257 for further information.

Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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