The Seal Bay Festival is now in its 16th season, and I have never encountered another festival quite like it. Its focus is contemporary American chamber music, but at heart, it is as much about teaching as performing. With the superb Cassatt Quartet as its resident ensemble, the festival assembles a faculty of established composers to mentor a slate of promising students. The students’ works are presented alongside the faculty’s music in concerts at schools, hospitals, retirement centers and art galleries as the festival travels between Portland, Brunswick, Vinalhaven, Belfast, Waterville, Topsham and Yarmouth.

But at the festival’s annual concert at Space Gallery, the student works are set aside, and the faculty takes the spotlight. This year’s installment, on Thursday evening, was a program of inventively pictorial recent scores by five of the eight faculty composers.

Two of those composers live in Maine, and curiously, both chose to write solo works for one of the festival’s guest performers, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, rather than for the quartet. Dan Sonenberg’s “Rope Ladder,” written last month, is for bass clarinet, and takes full advantage of the instrument’s rich range of timbres, from low-lying growls to silken, sweet-toned high passages. The work’s title suggests the imagery of a precarious climb, and Sonenberg suggests that, at first, in a rising theme.

But the piece becomes increasingly athletic, with sustained tones punctuated by multiphonic (chordal) bursts, tone-bending figures, and brisk, darting motifs that sometimes sound cartoonishly picaresque and even bright, a word that does not typically come to mind about bass clarinet music.

Vineet Shende’s inspiration for “At the Lagrangian Point” (2018) came while reading about space travel to his daughter, and finding a reference to the Lagrangian point – a point at which two celestial bodies exert an equal gravitational force on a smaller object (a satellite, for example) between them. That made him wonder how the principle might apply to music.

In theory, the gravitational forces hold the smaller object stationary, but portraying that precisely would undoubtedly make for a dull musical work. Shende, instead, used musical techniques – syncopation and multiphonics, for example – to suggest a kind of stability of forces pulling musical lines in different directions. It makes sense, but more to the point, he created an animated, involving piece that a listener could be swept into without worrying about how (and whether) the symbolism works.

Dukovski brought clarity and agility to both works, and also to Gerald Cohen’s “Voyagers” (2017), in which he joined the Cassatt players, on several kinds of clarinets, in a tribute to the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977 and still hurtling through space. There are, as you might expect, passages that evoke the eerie loneliness of the spacecrafts’ journeys. But much of the work is vigorously animated.

Cohen based parts of the score on pieces from the Voyagers’ golden discs – selections of music, natural sounds, speech and photographs, meant to convey an impression of Earth to distant civilizations that might decode them. His choices were a Renaissance dance, a Beethoven quartet and a Hindustani vocal piece, but though he briefly quotes each, he quickly deconstructs them and spins imaginative fantasies around their essential elements in his own freewheeling, largely neo-Romantic style.

Melinda Wagner’s “My Tioga” (2014) is a vividly picturesque, six-movement string quartet based on childhood memories (Tioga is the Pennsylvania county where her mother grew up). Parts of it – the “Damsel Fly,” “Milkweed (Memento Mori)” and “Little Church in Nauvoo” movements – are slow, wistful pieces, the last having an arresting, hymn-like quality. These are offset by lively, often spiky movements, packed with interplay between the four musicians.

The concert’s closing work was “Culai” (2012, revised 2013) by Lev Zhurbin, a composer and violist who goes by the single name Ljova (pronounced li-OH-va). Among Ljova’s specialties is the folk music of Eastern Europe, and in “Culai,” he pays tribute to Nicolae Neacşu, the violinist and vocalist in the Romanian gypsy ensemble Taraf de Haïdouks, with a movement also dedicated to Romica Puceanu, a renowned singer in the Romani style.

In a tightly constructed 18 minutes, Ljova conveys a colorful overview of Roma life, starting with rough-and-tumble children’s games and ending with plangent funeral music, with dance movements and evocations of falling in and out of love, tucked in between. It is a complex score – for long stretches, the meter changes nearly every bar – but it captures the spirit of the style magnificently.

The Cassatt players dove fully into that spirit, producing the glissandos, weeping bent notes, fast, fire-breathing fiddling and alternately gritty and sumptuous timbres – to say nothing of the lively dance rhythms – of the classic gypsy style.

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

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Twitter: kozinn

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