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Carnegie Hall comes to Skidmore

Five days after
previewing it for a wildly enthusiastic audience at Skidmore, Ensemble ACJW brought a challenging program of music to New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It was, declared the New York Times, a “terrific concert” by “accomplished musicians” and “an enormous success.”

It is hard not to reflect at least some credit for that success back on the earlier performance at Skidmore. But don’t call that a dress rehearsal. “They gave us a performance with all their heart, soul, and considerable talent invested,” says music-department chair Tom Denny, who coordinated the ensemble’s three-day residency in October. The fourteen young musicians—fellows in the Academy program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and the Weill Institute—also invested their talent and energy in classes, rehearsals, readings, and coaching sessions at Skidmore, the Academy’s first institutional partner.

Denny was struck by “the extent of their commitment to service and outreach, bringing music to underserved populations and new venues.” In addition to a demanding concert schedule and the Skidmore visit, fellows have fanned out through all five New York City boroughs to teach in public schools. ACJW violist Leah Swann says, “The music comes from something we all understand, but people who aren’t brought up with it find it a language they don’t know how to speak.” She hopes the group’s programs might motivate some young students to take up an instrument.

The concert featured old and new: from Poulenc and Bartok to Bright Sheng’s Sweet May Again and David Bruce’s Piosenki. The latter two pieces are recent Carnegie Hall commissions, and—in another coup for Skidmore—both composers came to campus for rehearsals.

The ACJW musicians also went to the Saratoga County Arts Council downtown, for readings of works composed by Skidmore students and local youth orchestra members. “It was such a wonderful experience,” says Sarah O’Sullivan ’08, who had composed a short wind quintet titled Morning in the Northwoods. “It’s pretty rare that unpublished composers get to hear their work played and discussed by instrumentalists of such caliber.” Nicholas Misani ’09, who had composed his three-minute string quartet Primrose on the computer, was “utterly surprised” to hear how expressive and warm it sounded when played by the musicians. “The performers kindly gave me feedback on how to better write for their instruments, and I changed many things, from simple indications on articulation to overall dynamics and mood changes.”

Misani and others say that while the virtuosity of the musicians was intimidating, “they were all very helpful, modest, and approachable.”

The group returns in February for another residency and free concert en route to Carnegie Hall. —KG