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The Other Music Scene

Successful regional classical ensembles and orchestras prove that the Capital Region does not live by rock alone

By Shawn Stone

It was the first concert of Capitol Chamber Artists’ season, and they had a problem. They didn’t have enough pie.
During the intermission, you see, snacks and assorted beverages are sold in the community room of the Albany church where their Saturday evening concerts are held. (Sunday afternoon concerts are in Benson, Vt.) The audience was considerably larger than anticipated; thus, not enough pie.

It was a problem that Mary Lou Saetta, executive artistic director Capitol Chamber Artists (and the ensemble’s violinist) was happy to have. When asked if she was pleased with audience turnout, she simply says, “Yes, we were.”

And the audience, it’s worth noting, were audibly pleased with the group’s epic performance. The four-piece Capitol Chamber Artists put on marathon shows. They start the evening with a “preconcert recital” at 7 PM featuring three or four noted works—on this night, sonatas and trios—followed by the main concert at 8 PM. This program consisted of a sonata and trio by Beethoven, and then his Symphony No. 5, arranged for chamber orchestra. It is, no exaggeration, a mammoth undertaking.

“It’s a monster of preparation,” sighs Saetta. “The two weeks before concerts are just very intensive.”

CCA are in their 36th season here, having started at RPI’s Chapel + Cultural Center in the 1960s, and now performing regularly at the First Congregational Church on Quail Street in Albany. While they have had some notable successes with new music, their focus now is on playing music of the baroque and romantic eras on period instruments. Thus, the pride and delight in their new, 19th-century fortepiano (the kind Beethoven composed for).

Of course, it isn’t easy keeping any arts organization going in this time of economic upheaval, but having a meaningful place in the cultural life of a region balances out the time spent grant writing and fund-raising. And there’s the music.

“We’re proud of it,” says Saetta, “[though] it’s a lot of hard work, and you kind of hang by your thumbs everyday.”

There’s no way to cover the local classical scene in one brief article without leaving out many worthy groups. So, up front, apologies to: Albany Pro Musica, Empire State Youth Orchestra, Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther, Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra, and, over in the Berkshires, Close Encounters With Music and the good folks who present the Aston Magna series (which has just expanded with a fall-winter season). For the purposes of this piece, four representative groups (who also happened to have recent performances) were chosen.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra is, so to speak, the 200-pound gorilla in the room: They’re the biggest. They perform in Albany, Troy, Saratoga Springs and—starting this season—Pittsfield, Mass. They have an award-winning, hotshot young maestro in David Alan Miller. They deftly walk the line between programming interesting new music and well-known and well-loved audience faves. They have an extensive community outreach program, and the well-thought-out goal of becoming the premier regional orchestra.

On Friday (Oct. 29), the ASO held their annual gala. This year’s theme was a fairy-tale ball, with works by a trio of Russians (Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky) and featuring Broadway diva Sylvia McNair singing fairy-tale-themed show tunes; after the concert at the Palace, they held a celebration at the Desmond in Colonie, which drew more than 250 people. This savvy program is typical of the orchestra: It’s audience-friendly while remaining musically compelling.

The ASO’s long-term plan, explains Sharon Walsh, the orchestra’s executive director, proceeds nicely: “We have been really looking carefully over the last number of years, [with the idea of] becoming more regional. Our goal was to have concerts in Saratoga, to go into the Berkshires, and then eventually to have a venue south and a venue west. We’re moving ahead slowly and carefully.”

The key, Walsh says, is working everything out to the last detail.

“You really want to have all of your finances in order before you start expanding anywhere.” In the case of the Pittsfield move, she notes: “We had a wonderful sponsor in the Berkshires, Berkshire Bank, which really has allowed us to expand [there].”

The mission, Walsh explains, is to have the Albany Symphony reach as many people as possible, and make the public feel like it’s “their orchestra.” It’s more than just the nine concerts in their regular season, Walsh argues. It’s the concerts at Riverfront Park, the new “adopt-a-school” outreach program, the “Tiny Tots” program, and even the concerts in which the symphony backs pop singers like k.d. lang or Olivia Newton-John.

“We’re certainly always interested in expanding our reach,” Walsh says.

In direct contrast with the ASO is the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra. They have a very different mission.

“We’re very rooted in Schenectady,” explains executive director Christine Mason. “It’s our 71st season.”

The SSO has an interesting history. Composer-pianist Percy Grainger was a guest conductor-soloist in their first decade, and, in one of those only-in-Schenectady events, the SSO became one of the first American orchestras to be broadcast overseas on an experimental, General Electric short-wave radio station in 1935. Of course the orchestra, like the city itself, has changed considerably.

“We have a lot of competition in this area for arts dollars and time,” says Mason. “There’s a tremendous wealth of arts activities, both on the classical scene and in general.”

Which means the SSO, the official “orchestra in residence” at Proctor’s Theatre, have to distinguish themselves in their own way.

“I think what Schenectady Symphony offers that is different from other classical groups [is that] it’s a mixture of people who play for their livelihood in one fashion or another, whether they’re teachers or performers,” says Mason. “Their music is an avocation. We have engineers, we have business owners, we have surgeons; [it’s] an interesting mix of people who don’t want to have music out of their lives. They’re capable of playing at that level.”

Indeed. Under the direction of Charles Schneider (founding music director of the Glimmerglass Opera), the symphony’s opening concert of the season on Oct. 24 was both accomplished and entertaining, balancing audience favorites (Beethoven and Smetana) with an impressive world-premiere work (Tenor Concerto for Trombone) by Joseph Fennimore.

“Every group tends to do a slightly different repertoire. We’ve tended to do things that are a little bit more familiar to audiences,” says Mason. “It’s nice to hear something familiar, but it’s nice to hear something new, too.”

In the same week that saw the very different performances by Capitol Chamber Artists and the Albany and Schenectady symphonies, the University at Albany’s music department presented pianist (and faculty member) Max Lifchitz in a program of German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s music called Expressionism and Its Discontents.

There’s a certain droll humor to scheduling a Schoenberg program so close to Halloween—poor Arnold is generally treated as the bogeyman of 20th-century music. As the composer who first developed and championed atonal, or serial music, he’s widely pilloried as the man who wrecked classical music. You will very rarely hear his music on classical radio, public or commercial; when’s he’s mentioned, it’s often with disdain.

And yet, on that cool autumn evening, around 50 people showed up at UAlbany’s Performing Arts Center Recital Hall to hear some of Schoenberg’s bracing, thorny piano works performed masterfully by Lifchitz. They reacted with enthusiasm, too, giving Lifchitz four curtain calls—not the phony, pro forma calls for an encore that are depressingly common at rock or pop shows, but genuine acclaim.

On a night like that, it’s easy to believe that the local classical scene is as healthy and diverse as any other we have.


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