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Composer Elliot Schwartz salutes the performers of his piece, String Quartet No. 2, 7/30/11 at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall (Photo: Dee Dee Schwartz.)

Bowdoin College offers up a wonderful selection of new classical compositions annually through its Gamper Festival, a series of evenings focused on bringing together both regional and international works both past and present. Admission to this event is by donation only, so classical fans low on funds can still attend, and the array of composers and performers featured can vary widely from night to night and year to year. This year’s Gamper Festival closed Sunday evening, but I was there to catch Saturday night’s performances, and I was thoroughly blown away by what I saw.

Highlights of the evening included a beautiful viola piece by 19 year old composer Molly Joyce (An award-winning Bowdoin student), an intensive unfinished violin sonata by Richard Francis, and a show-stealing stick piece written by David T. Little. Rounding out the evening was a stunning performance of Elliot SchwartzString Quartet No. 2. For those not in the know, Schwartz taught at Bowdoin from the 60s to the 2000s, and is one of Maine’s foremost composers and musical educators (The Library of Congress has many of his papers, letters, sketches, and compositions in their collection.)

Little’s piece, Speak Softly, required its four players to utilize sticks of various lengths, ranging from standard branches to a single massive log, in order to stamp out highly patterned and arranged rhythmic patterns. Thanks to the design of the stage and the hall itself, the acoustic effect of the four players’ pounding was intense and resonant. Combined, from low low tones to higher mid percussive tones, they sonically approximated a very loud and incredible drum kit, with obvious undertones of tribal drum circles audible throughout. The image of four young men, dressed in traditional performance attire, pounding the stage with sticks and giant branches was hilarious and instantly memorable. The piece itself was nothing short of extraordinary. You could bop your head to this piece, you could get lost in its toe-tapping rhythms, and yet it was hard and awe-inspiring, and rhythmically astounding. I’d even say that it was one of the most impressive, surprising, and enjoyable classical performances I’ve yet seen.

Schwartz’ string quartet, one of his most recent pieces, did indeed manage to follow Little’s ridiculous and engaging act. Elliott himself joked before his piece that the previous act was “a hard act to follow.” The four players Muneko Otani, Shaun Ho, Sarasa Otake, and Antoni Josef Inacay brought equal measures of energy and restraint to the performance, grinding away in the more severe passages and steadily plucking in the hushed portions. The piece itself is alternately gorgeous and fiery, and full of brief silences. Schwartz noted that the melodies for this quartet were quoted from tiny pieces of Copland (The piece is dedicated to Copland and Louise Nevelson) and segmented and layered into the total work. Sitting there Saturday night, I was amazed that a composition could switch from lovely to dissonant so many times over the course of its duration. It’s far from something along the lines of Bartok’s string quartets, often constructed predominantly from dissonances and harsh tonal pairings, but it’s also far from the opposite end of the spectrum, where the lightest romantic string quartets traffic endlessly in lovely melodicisms. Schwartz’ quartet seems to alternate from one to the other a few huge handfuls of times over the course of its duration, and to great effect, but always in intersecting layers. It’s fantastic in the way that it reflects Schwartz’ earliest work with tape and tape collage, as though he were literally and metaphysically cutting and splicing Copland into a single composed reel of wonderful sound. The man has come full circle, and the effect is very powerful.

For more information on The Charles E. Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, head here.

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