The opening concert of the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin College had something for everyone. It was avant garde, Romantic, eclectic and sentimental. What all of the works had in common were the uncommon demands they put upon the performers.
I don’t think there has ever been an evening at the festival with so many spectacular performances.
The most outstanding example was by Derek Bermel, a noted composer and clarinet virtuoso, playing Petra Hogan’s work “Rashim,” which fuses the Indian raga tradition with Western contemporary music.
What concerns me is that no one else may be able to play it, and that would be a shame, since it has a lot to offer. It includes rapid staccato sections, runs from one extreme to the other, and has passages during which one could swear that two clarinets were playing at the same time.
The same might be said about the degree of difficulty of the winner of Gamper’s seventh annual student competition, “Sonnet XX,” by Ursula Kwong-Brown, for solo cello. The work is based upon a passionate love poem by Pablo Neruda, and is as difficult emotionally as it is technically.
The composer, who spoke on stage, said that Nan-Cheng Chen’s rendition revealed to her aspects of the piece that she hadn’t thought of until hearing a live performance.
The avant garde was represented by “Deflected Harmlessly into the Ceiling,” by Natalie Draper, a solo virtuoso display carried off brilliantly by Ju Hee Kang on flute. The variations of a jagged rhythmical motif gave the impression of a ricochet, or a hard ball bouncing off the walls of a squash court until it comes harmlessly to rest.
The program bean with a characteristic work by Elliott Schwartz, “A Garden for RKB” (1990), written to commemorate Robert K. Beckwith, co-founder, with Lewis Kaplan, of the Bowdoin International Music Festival in 1964. Each of the three sections – “Begonia,” “Heather” and “Azalea” – contains disguised references to the operas that were Beckwith’s first love, as well as motifs based upon the letters of his name.
A virtuoso piece in its own right – for clarinet, piano and violin – it is full of Schwartz’s iconoclastic wit, such as the piano’s recurring melodic fragment in the treble.
Tradition came to the fore in the second half of the program, which began with “The Odessa Trio,” by Ofer Ben-Amots (b. 1955). A thoroughly delightful work, it chooses whatever musical techniques, from waltz-schmalz to tone clusters played with the fist, needed to evoke a place and an era. It was lovingly played by Muneko Otani, violin, Meta Weiss, cello, and Pavel Bogomiakov, piano.
The surprise of the evening of contemporary music was the delicacy of the final work on the program, “Lullabies for Samantha,” by Richard Francis (b. 1969), written for his 3-year-old daughter, and based upon “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
“Lullabies,” for accompanied soprano sung by Sacha Peiser, could be late Gustave Mahler or early Arnold Schoenberg if it were not for its innovative scoring – harp, percussion, cello and double bass – which provides the versatility and power of a full orchestra with the intimacy of a chamber ensemble. The entire impression was marvelous.
More wonders are in store, from Luciano Berio, William Bolcom, George Crumb and others, at the Saturday and Sunday concerts, which are open to the public for a suggested donation.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: