Talea Ensemble performs at the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Photo by John Di Fatta/Bowdoin International Music Festival

Embedded within the more tradition-minded confines of the Bowdoin International Music Festival is a brief series of events and concerts called the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music. The mini festival brings recently composed music to audiences at Studzinski Hall on the campus of Bowdoin College. Music from the Gamper Festival can both throw off sparks and ask big questions, even as it seeks to widen the portal through which new listeners can move toward a more broadly defined classical music.

This year, the final Gamper concert of the season featured members of the highly regarded New York City-based Talea Ensemble in a Sunday afternoon performance that included a selection of works by composers from around the world. The compositional emphasis tended to favor sharp angularity over narrative lyricism. A sense of restive uncertainty, mixed with bits of comic relief, characterized much of the well-attended 90-minute performance.

Yoshi Weinberg (flutes), Rane Moore (clarinets), Leah Asher (violin), Carrie Frey (viola), Chris Gross (cello) and David Friend (keyboards) leaned into a program that began with “coronAtion II: Naufraghi del mondo che hanno ancora un cuore” by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth (b. 1968). Part of a larger work, this excerpt featured a theatrical bent with players slowly gathering from position at the four corners of the stage. Shocking moments of dissonance contrasted with descending glissandi. The piece eventually evolved into a playful march with the players huddling around the piano.

Weinberg, Gross and Friend followed with “ISO[R]” by South African composer Andile Khumalo (b. 1978). The piece had Friend using mallets to strike the inner workings of the piano. Startling, agitated flourishes broke the spell of quieter moments, rich with overtones, to produce a haunting whole.

“La forma dello spazio” by Canadian composer Zosha di Castri (b. 1985) placed Asher, Gross and Friend on stage with conductor James Baker while Weinberg and Moore were positioned behind the audience. As the title implies, spaciousness was emphasized in this piece, which suggested a slightly older modernism with strumming and rattling leading to a very pleasant, consonant finish that was one of the highlights of the afternoon.

“Language Instruction” by American composer Derek Bermel (b. 1967) was a laugh-inducing theatrical piece that had Moore, Friend, Asher and Gross acting out a classroom scene where a rebellious pianist defied an insistent clarinetist/teacher. The fragmented “lessons” went on perhaps a bit too long, but the humorous engagement of the players was fun to experience.

“Clocks for Seeing” by American composer Anthony Cheung (b. 1982) was a major, closing work for the program. Adding laptop-guided electronic keyboard and percussion, plus doubling Moore and Weinberg on bass instruments, gave the work an orchestral feel. Movements included impressive, almost jazzy collective passages and more gently sonorous stretches to impressively conclude this well-played and thought-provoking performance by the Talea Ensemble.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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