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Friday, July 30, 2021

Power and Authority

From the Classical Vault Dept.: These hot, moist summer days put me in mind of just a such a day thirty-five years ago, when my wife and I journeyed to a park in Schoharie County that shared space with a power-generating dam. That’s where we heard a fine concert by the ever-resourceful Catskill Conservatory Chamber Players, as I explain below.


OUT ON ROUTE 30, just past Blenheim, there is a state park on a reservoir used by the New York State Power Authority as a pumping station. Beside the park, the authority has a visitors center that features a done-over barn equipped with literature and displays to explain just what it’s doing in the big concrete buildings visible beside the lake.

NY Power Authority Visitors Center
Saturday there was electricity of a musical kind generated in the barn as the Catskill Conservatory Chamber Players gathered for a concert that featured the premiere of Conservatory founder Carleton Clay’s new woodwind quintet.

There seems to be some antipathy between classical music and air conditioning or so it seemed last weekend. The noisy fans in the barn were shut off for the performance and the stage lights were hot but, as Schoharie County Arts Council president Janet Brennan observed when introducing the players, at least this concert wasn’t being rained out – as was the case with outdoor events that evening.

Another feature of the program was a fortepiano built by John O’Connor, who believes his design represents the only significant advance upon piano building in the 20th century. His instrument combines the light, crisp fortepiano sound and single action of the late 18th century with modern construction techniques to produce a keyboard more in keeping with the style the Classical-era composers had in mind without it being slavishly antique.

Works by Weber and Mozart showed off the strong points of the fortepiano. Much credit must go to pianist Joseph Dechario for achieving a splendid balance with the other players without sacrificing the energy of his part. The Trio in G Minor by Weber was a tour de force for Dechario, flutist Floyd Hebert and cellist Stephen Stalker, while Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 452, combined Dechario with Julia Hasbrouck Clay on French horn, oboist Rene Prins, clarinetist Tom Slavinsky, and bassoonist Spencer Phillips. Both works had the easygoing intensity of superior ensemble work.

Although the fortepiano was obsolete by the time American composer Henry Cowell came on the scene early in this century, he probably would have sanctioned its use in his Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 9 for cello and piano. Cowell, after all, made use of all parts of the piano, inside and out, in his more notorious pieces.

Stalker and Dechario played the opening with Handelian dignity and found a completely suitable modern voice for the remainder, a lean work that demonstrated Cowell’s influence upon Clay.

The woodwind quintet, titled “Song with Tropes,” was commissioned by the Schoharie County Arts Council for this occasion. The composer made use of thematic material developed while on sabbatical in France last year to produce a brief, harmonically spare, lyrical essay that explores the textures of each of the five performing instruments.

The tropes of the title refer to an ancient musical practice of embellishment. Themes are introduced by flute, oboe and clarinet in unison to a slow pedal from horn and bassoon; then each instrument takes a turn in embellishment.

Voices are set in unison or octaves; harmony results only by an occasional pedal note, giving the work a monkish sound quite in keeping with the trope tradition.

Clay was on hand to introduce the work and share in the applause. It is a piece that should find its way into the repertory of many a wind group who would like a melodious contrast to the usual stuff. This is new and adventuresome ground for the Arts Council – and, no doubt, for the Power Authority –  to break. The promise given is that more such events will take place in the area as the facilities are improved.

– Schenectady Gazette, 29 July 1986

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