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