Now in their third year as artistic directors of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Phillip and David Ying are beginning to find directions that will help them put their own stamp on the festival. The challenge they have faced should not be underestimated. When they took over, in 2015, the festival had been run for half a century by its founder, the estimable Lewis Kaplan (who has gone on to establish the Portland Bach Festival), and it had a format and programming traditions that had evolved successfully over that time.

No director will simply jettison those, so it wasn’t surprising that in their first season, the Yings programmed cautiously, but experimented with mixing students and faculty in the festival concerts, a charming idea that did not always yield top flight performances. Last year, the Yings programmed more adventurously, with a focus on guest string quartets and unusual contemporary works, as well as an overall theme – Reinvention – that didn’t always work, program to program, but which conveyed the Yings’ overall intentions for the festival.

At this year’s festival, which opened Monday evening at Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College campus with a performance by the Ying Quartet, the shape of this reinvention is becoming clearer, with the addition of a series of composer talks, an expansion into non-traditional spaces in Brunswick and other cities – among them Portland, Yarmouth and Topsham – and the live internet streaming of several concerts. The festival’s educational mission has expanded slightly as well: This year 270 students have come to study with the festival’s players and composers, up from 255 last summer.

To open the festival’s 53rd year, the Ying Quartet played a program of Russian music, with works by Prokofiev and Stravinsky, from the outskirts of the standard canon, plus a Tchaikovsky favorite, the “Souvenir of Florence” Sextet (Op. 70), for which they were joined by violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist David Requiro.

Prokofiev composed his String Quartet No. 2 in F major (Op. 92) in 1941, when the Soviet government sent him to Nalchik, a remote town in the Caucasus, to keep him out of harm’s way while the Nazis were bombing Moscow. Taken with folk music of his temporary home in the Kabardino-Balkar region, Prokofiev transformed some of the melodies he heard – and, to some extent, the timbres of the rough-hewn instruments the locals played – into the raw materials for his quartet.

They suited Prokofiev’s style, sometimes tempering the composer’s acerbic edge, sometimes magnifying it. You can hear some of the simple, sometimes brash melodies, and squared-off rhythms weaving through the quartet’s three movements; but you also hear Prokofiev’s carefully considered refinements, in passages where he harmonizes those elements and expands upon them. There is also plenty of pure Prokofiev, more melancholy than dour here, but still full of anxiety.

The Ying Quartet, which in addition to David and Phillip, includes violinists Robin Scott and Janet Ying, highlighted the work’s contrasting folksiness and sophistication – and tapped into its wartime anxieties – with a compelling flexibility. Their sense of color was vivid, but natural; at times you could almost hear the folk ensembles that inspired Prokofiev, peeking through the quartet textures.

An equally variegated account of Stravinsky’s Concertino (1920) closed the first half of the program. Mostly, Stravinsky’s astringent harmonies and involved rhythms make his piece sound more adventurously modern than Prokofiev’s, despite its having been composed 21 years earlier. But this compact piece (it runs just over six and half minutes) also offers glimpses of the neo-Classical style to which Stravinsky was beginning to gravitate.

After the intermission, the quartet set aside the angularities and dissonances of the first half, and dove into Tchaikovsky’s picturesque, melody-rich sextet, as lush and steamy a work as you’ll find in the Romantic repertory.

It was a fiery performance, brisk, hard-driven, but with opportunities for all six players to let their instruments sing, particularly in the slow movement, the heart of which is an almost operatic duet between the violin (Scott) and cello (David Ying), set against a pizzicato accompaniment. Striking, too, was the rhythmic accenting of the Allegro vivace finale, which sounded, in the context of the full program, like a precursor to Prokofiev’s rhythmic adventures.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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