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Matthew Tommasini‘s ‘Towards the Wall’ (2014) is a short showpiece for double bass, an instrument that doesn’t have many of those. Bassist Max Mulpagano, with support at the piano from Minjung Seo, rose to its challenges admirably, tackling its technical demands with apparent ease, but also bringing considerable lyricism to his performance.
— Allan Kozinn

At Bowdoin festival’s close, contemporary music is the focus

You could hardly wish for a more stylistically varied slate than last night's program of the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music.

BY ALLAN KOZINN

You could argue that the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, nestled into the final week of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is unnecessary, given the impressive amount of new music presented at the larger festival. But actually, its apparent superfluousness is one of its salient features. Instead of seeming like a new-music ghetto, set apart from the main festival so as not to disturb the worship of the classics, the Gamper Festival simply offers a sharper focus on recent works, in a handful of free concerts, through Sunday.

Derek Bermel, the composer who oversees the Bowdoin Festival’s composition department, has assembled the programs in recent years, and for this year’s opener, at Studzinski Recital Hall on Thursday evening, he chose seven works – two by composers born in 1948 (Dan Welcher and Paquito D’Rivera), the rest by composers born in the 1970s.

IF YOU GO

What: The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music

Where: Studzinski Recital Hall at Bowdoin College, Brunswick

Reviewed: Thursday, July 27

The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music runs through Sunday at Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College Campus. The concerts are at 7:30 and are free.

You could hardly wish for a more stylistically varied slate than Thursday evening’s program, which began with David Ludwig‘s “Pale Blue Dot” (2014), a string quartet inspired by a photograph of Earth, taken from a few billion miles away by the Voyager probe. Ludwig begins with a single note, played in unison, but with restlessly changing rhythms, and eventually giving way to a string of eerily quiet chords, against which the cello plays an assertive, sliding line.

Ludwig’s sense of color is subtle and otherworldly, and over the course of the 25-minute piece, he alternates between thoughtfully applied effects – glissandos, tapping, the sound of glass slides on fingerboards – and beautifully melancholy chordal writing that keeps the piece from devolving into a catalog of techniques. The Ivani Quartet gave the work a focused reading that conveyed not only its mystery, but also a sense of the lonely desolation of space.

Andreia Pinto Correia built her “La Minotauromachie” (2009) around her impressions of Picasso’s Minotaur etchings, which she has imaginatively transformed into a pair of virtuosic movements for cello (Roberto Arundale) and piano (Amalia Rinehart). The music has an energetic, narrative quality – Pinto Correia sees the etchings not as frozen images, but as glimpses of an unfolding story – but the work’s most striking element is its use of sharply accented flamenco rhythms in its second movement.

The raw material for Paola Prestini‘s “Quiet, Listen” (2013) was drawn from recordings of two conversations, one with a friend in psychic pain, the other with the composer’s mother. But if you don’t actually hear much speaking in this psychodrama for cello, percussion and electronics, although the recorded voices are part of the electronic component, the solo cello line, which Prestini composed for her husband, former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (who played it here) conveys the pain of her friend’s scarcely heard narrative.

Oddly, the percussion writing, which is meant to represent her friend’s tormenter, is actually the score’s most attractive element, suffused as it is with interlocking rhythms and tactile sounds. But maybe that’s the point: Attraction can become oppression with startling ease, and in this case, as unoppressive as the percussion writing seemed, it often overwhelmed the cello writing in the section of the piece devoted to that first conversation, coming into its own only in the “Listen” section, built around Prestini’s conversation with her mother.

Matthew Tommasini‘s “Towards the Wall” (2014) is a short showpiece for double bass, an instrument that doesn’t have many of those. Bassist Max Mulpagano, with support at the piano from Minjung Seo, rose to its challenges admirably, tackling its technical demands with apparent ease, but also bringing considerable lyricism to his performance. The last of the 1970s composers, Andrew Norman, contributed “Mine Mime Meme” (2015), a prismatic piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Like the Ludwig quartet, it was rich in effects, but put them to thoroughly expressive use, with thematic fragments blossoming into long, singing lines and internal dialogues between groups of instruments.

The works by the program’s oldest composers were no less vital than those of their colleagues born in the ’70s. In Welcher’s “The Moerae” (2005-’06) for winds and piano, theme fragments and bird call figures morphed attractively into long-line melodies. And D’Rivera’s “La Fleur de Cayenne” (2014), in a gracefully nuanced, high-energy reading by Bermel on clarinet (with Min Joo Yi at the piano), brought a hint of free-spirited Latin jazz to the program.