Review: Crowd packs first concert at new Zankel concert hall

An overflow crowd gathered at Skidmore College Friday night to celebrate the inaugural concert in th
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An overflow crowd gathered at Skidmore College Friday night to celebrate the inaugural concert in the Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall, the chief performance space of the $32.5 million Arthur Zankel Music Center. The eight-member Ensemble ACJW appearing under the Carnegie Premieres label provided inspired listening.

The hall, which was at capacity of about 600, is U-shaped and visually gorgeous. More than 200 other people watched the concert on closed-circuit television from other locations. Light blonde wood is the primary color from the sides of the balcony to the numerous acoustic baffles that hover at ceiling level. The stage without any curtain is the full width of the hall with a glass backdrop behind the stage through which the audience could see the lit campus or the reflections of the artists as they took bows.

Seating was tight downstairs and even tighter upstairs where people had little leg or elbow room. Chairs lined the sides of the U and most people had to lean over the balcony’s edge to see the stage, which seemed far below. The height of the balcony’s edge also meant that short people in the first row of the balcony couldn’t see the lip of the stage.

Although sight lines weren’t too much of a concern because this concert featured a small chamber group, acoustics were live. The sound was warm and bright but seemed to favor the wind players, the piano and the lower strings. The bass easily rumbled. The upper strings’ tones tended to blur and sometimes the louder dynamic levels swam. Anything played softly, however, carried effortlessly. The musicians seemed pleased.

“It’s an incredible space,” said bassist Evan Premo at the pre-concert talk. “You can play quietly. The silence is palpable … it gives life and color.”

After college president Phil Glotzbach told the crowd the new space had invigorated the music department and music department chair Tom Denny called the night a “magical moment,” the musicians came on stage. Oboe James Smith, clarinet Sarah Beaty, violin Owen Dalby, viola Meena Bhasin, and Premo performed Prokofiev’s Quintet in G minor, Op. 39 (1924). It’s a marvelous piece that’s full of color, irony, boldness and virtuosic demands. The players were excellent and emotionally committed to the often terse but witty and teasing dialogues. Their pacing, pitch, ensemble, phrasing, tempos and technical capacities were the highest level.

David Bruce’s “Gumboots” (2008) was next with Beaty mostly on bass clarinet, Dalby, Bhasin, violin Joanna Frankel and cello Nicholas Canellakis. Bruce writes with intelligence, inspiration and a knack for creating sound pictures that are almost cinematic.

The first part was plaintive and yearning with desolate landscapes and horizons that seemed to stretch forever.

The second dance-y part moved with vigor, loud and snappy rhythms, some of which had Caribbean flavors or the high energy of carnival. Beaty was fabulous in a brilliantly virtuosic part that required a lot of flair and style.

At intermission, people, including Lake George Opera artistic director Curt Tucker, spoke about how great the players and hall sounded. Some people who had sat downstairs complained about the chilly air conditioning and came upstairs where it was quite warm.

The final work was Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 6, which piano Angelina Gadeliya, Frankel and Canellakis played with intensity and finesse.

The next concert at the new hall is Feb. 21 with the Brazilian Guitar Quartet in an all Villa-Lobos program.

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