The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music ended with a bang Sunday evening at Bowdoin College’s Studzinski Recital Hall, with pianist Emma Tahmizian, Frank Huang, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, and David Requiro, cello, in a passionate performance of “Far Variations” by Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince (b. 1960).
Turkey was the westernmost point in an evening devoted to music by Asian composers, including one work played by the composer herself, “Chung-Sung Gok”, by Jung Yoon Wie of South Korea, based on a tune for the Korean flute, a recording of which was played before the performance.
The piece makes clever use of ornamentation over long notes and microtones on the violin and cello to mimic the wavering of the folk instrument’s tone.
The program began with “Spiral,” for cello, percussion and piano, by Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung. A huge suite of drums, marimbas, gongs, cymbals, tubular bells and wind chimes, kept percussionist Eliza Kinney busy while providing a fascinating blend of pitches and textures, especially in the beginning (the center of the spiral?) when some passages had all the instruments playing the same pitch but with totally different timbres.
Like all of the works played Sunday evening, “Spiral” makes use of contemporary Western techniques without losing sight of Asian traditions.
My favorite of the first half was “Feng” (“Wind” in Mandarin) by Chen Yi (b. 1953), scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, showing what can still be done with a woodwind quintet when unfettered by Western notions of tonality. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the quintet was dissonant without being uncomfortable.
The first movement, which begins with a haunting oboe solo and characteristic Chinese downward slurs, was a pastorale, reminiscent of herders on the steppes of Mongolia. With a driving rhythm and exchange of note patterns among the instruments, the second was more lively, with highly unusual but satisfying combinations and textures. Did I hear echoes of Debussy?
Following intermission came Karen Tanaka’s “Invisible Curve” for flute, violin, piano and viola, representing Japan. It is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the outer limits of traditional western instruments, without exceeding their design capacities. And it does seem to follow the contours of some invisible shape.
The final work, “Far Variations,” represented the most intense and effective fusion of Western and Asian music. It is a traditional and highly effective set of variations on a theme, often as hidden as Elgar’s “Enigma.” The incorporation of Turkish and Balkan music is unmistakable without the work becoming a pastiche. There is also some American influence (I refuse to mention “Turkey in the Straw”) where Copland and jazz make themselves known.
Perhaps fusion is indeed the future of art music. It certainly opens up new avenues for exploration.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.