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Monday, April 12, 2021

Identity Capers

From the Classical Vault Dept.: What was the classical-music world like in the Albany, NY, area before Covid? Let’s go back 34 years to find out. Although the pandemic nipped most live performances in the bud, it’s always been a rough slog for American composers, living and dead. But the Albany Symphony has made impressive attempts, over the decades, to rectify that. Here’s what was going on in April 1987.


THE IDENTITY CRISIS that continues to worry American composers has at its root mixed feelings towards the music that truly can be defined as American.

Amy Beach
We heard two different reactions to that problem at Friday night’s Troy Music Hall concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, as Julius Hegyi conducted works by a pair of Americans.

Amy Beach's “Le Bal Masque” demonstrated an old style. Written in 1894 as a piano solo, orchestrated at the turn of the century, it is a pleasant, three-quarter-time work, American only insofar as it has none of the ethnic eccentricities that might identify it with a particular other country. It sounds nonspecific. European.

This impression could be partly the fault of the conducting, for Hegyi brought to it his characteristically inscrutable baton, resulting in wildly incompatible changes of tempo throughout the brief piece.

Ellen Zwilich wrote her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for a premiere just a year ago. Like any contemporary American composer, she has the varied legacy of this century to reckon with: like many, she has “gone European” in the sense that her work has more in common with the tunelessness of the Virgil Thomson school than with our very melodic domestic heritage.

The piano concerto, which featured Marc-Andre Hamelin in a dynamic, aggressive performance, is a three-movement work with touches reminiscent of Shostakovich (doubling piano and bells, for instance, and the use of dotted-note syncopations) but overall it’s a study of textures and timbre.

And it succeeds very nicely in this respect, but it’s an academic respect indeed, one that verges on sterility. This occurs because. by abandoning melody as a compositional tool, composers throughout this century have lost music’s main source of humor.

Hamelin and the orchestra did their work with complete dedication, but the overall effect was one of great solemnity. Another detraction was under-preparation of the orchestra: the strings often faltered in passages that called for lushness.

A lot of attention obviously was spent upon the symphony that closed the concert: Carl Nielsen’s “The Inextinguishable” the roof-rattler of the program. This was Nielsen’s 1916 affirmation of “the elementary will to love,” which, he believed, could be realized in the abstraction of music. The score is certainly stirring, culminating in a finale that set percussionists Russell Maddox and Richard Albagli across the stage from one another, each behind a battery of kettledrums, pounding in a frenzy that delighted the audience.

The final concerts of the season, which also mark Hegyi’s final appearance as music director, take place May 15 and 16 at the Troy Music Hall and Palace Theatre, respectively. The program features Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and a new work by Joseph Fennimore: his Piano Concerto No. 2, titled “Crystal Stairs.”

– Schenectady Gazette, 13 April 1987

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