Classical music fans given a Carnegie preview

By JAMES HENNERTY, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, October 7, 2007

The classical music scene got an injection of youthful energy at Skidmore College Friday night.

The school has affiliated with Carnegie Hall by giving a residency to Ensemble ACJW, a group of 14 postgraduate musicians that performs in New York City and works in the city's public schools. At Skidmore, they develop their skills by interacting with students and faculty. A local audience got to preview works the ensemble will soon play at Carnegie.

Bright Sheng's "Sweet May Again," a new work for string bass and piano, was inspired by a William Carlos Williams poem. A plodding melody gives way to quiet and intense lyrical music, with the bass playing in its highest register in imitation of the Chinese music sounds the composer is noted for. The poem suggests it is the sound of spring gradually breaking through dull winter. It's a short piece (about eight minutes) and skillfully written, but less substantial than the other Sheng composition on the program.

"Four Movements for Piano Trio" has been heard here before. The Chinese music effects (harmonics and bowing in the strings, plucking strings on the piano) are an intrinsic part of the musical vocabulary. The composer packs the fast, energetic music into the middle movements, and ends on a softer, melancholy note. Several hearings have convinced this listener that the work will be a standard part of the chamber music repertoire before long. (It stands up very well in its eloquent reshaping of the piano trio form.) Violinist Anna Elashvili, cellist Claire Bryant and pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe gave it a near definitive reading.

The other new work is "Piosenki" by British composer David Bruce. He has taken children's poems by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim and playground chants and set them in a 30-minute song cycle.

Bruce is fascinated by the sounds of eastern European cultures, including gypsy and klezmer music. His writing is masterful, both in setting text to melody, and in orchestrating sound for nine players. Guest artists Melissa Wegner and Kyle Ferrill sang well. The ensemble programmed two works of the last century as well. Francis Poulenc's "Sextet for Piano and Winds" was delightful, particularly the playing of the five winds. This is music from the brilliant era in Paris just before World War II began, and its casual, sophisticated sound holds up well.

The audience seemed most taken by Bela Bartok's "Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano," a work combining the composer's unique sound with a large dose of Hungarian folk music. Angela Cho was formidable on the violin, and Romie de Guise-Langlois was brilliant on the clarinet despite a few breathy passages.

Skidmore's partnership with Carnegie Hall has given energetic players to an audience with considerably more young people than are seen at classical music concerts these days.

James Hennerty is a freelance writer from Albany and a regular contributor to the Times Union.

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