There is Life Outside Your Department: Notes on The First Skidmore College Guitar Festival

by Mark Greenberg
March 2006

First Skidmore College Guitar Festival
October 29, 2005

Those of us who are Big Apple–centric may choose to forget that one of the glories of the current classical guitar scene is that there are vital and ambitious guitar scenes elsewhere in the universe. Long Island and Upstate New York have wonderful guitar societies. Though Saratoga Springs is less than 200 miles from NYC, you may or may not have heard of Joel Brown, the excellent guitarist who is Artist in Residence (Senior Artist, in fact, thank you very much) at Skidmore College.

Joel is a fine guitarist and an even better ensemble player. His duo-guitar CD with Edward Flower as first guitarist/arranger, Chords and Thyme, is a ravishing collection of English folksongs that should be in every classical guitar CD collection.

Skidmore, as a college, is not primarily (or even secondarily) focused on music, but still has a remarkable music program. The Filene family (of Basement fame), in particular, been very, very good to Skidmore. The music building is Filene Hall, and music scholarships are offered to Filene Scholars, but even those students who are at Skidmore on partial music scholarship may or may not be music majors, and in fact often aren’t.

That said, Joel Brown has done an amazing job championing classical guitar at Skidmore. The LAGQ, individually and en masse, has appeared multiple times, as have Sharon Isbin and the Assads.

Now, Joel Brown has taken it to a whole other level and produced the First Annual Skidmore College Guitar Festival (ever) on Saturday, October 29, 2005. The program featured a Croatian guitarist who rarely appears in New York, Zoran Dukic . You will hear of him again as he is an unbelievably accomplished player. I missed his masterclass, and that was a shame as he no doubt has plenty to say, especially about left hand technique, as you will see.

I caught up with the Guitar Festival during its Skidmore Parent Phase. Joel (dad of two Skidmore grads — pays to be faculty) is a member of several ensembles, including a jazz ensemble with Chris Brubeck, and a classical trio — Tritonis — composed of guitar, flute and cello. Ann Alton, Skidmore ‘cello virtuoso in semi-residence (she also teaches at Manhattan School of Music) and flutist Kristin Bacchiocchi-Stewart. Tritonis opened the afternoon session and played a varied program including works especially written for them by Andrew York and Vivian Fine.

Duo LiveOak, including wandering minstrel-at-large/composer Frank Wallace (kid in class of ’07 also, thank you very much) and singer/composer Nancy Knowles presented an exquisite program of their own music including Bestiary, a set of pieces built around poems by Theodore Roethke. These are lovely pieces with just the merest astringency of modernist tonalities.

The afternoon session concluded with a performance by Ronald Pearl (son in Skidmore class of ’06) of a varied and interesting program with wonderfully elegant performances of pieces by contemporary composers including Celso Machado, Arnaud Dumond and Ian Krouse. Ron’s playing of Dumond’s Homage à Ravel was particularly beautiful and moving, with splendid voicing of melody above a wonderfully whispered arpeggio (not easy!).

Zoran Dukic’s evening program opened with a nearly flawless (but somewhat understated) performance of the Bach Chaconne, taken at a very decent pace with staggeringly perfect runs — easily explainable, as Zoran has left hand extension and fourth finger placement to die for. Later, when I asked how long he had practiced, he said “Actually, I didn’t have time!” Anyone who can play the Chaconne cold as an opening number is a genius. You heard it first here: We are going to be hearing from him.

The rest of the program went from strength to strength, especially after the intermission. In pieces by Barrios, Llobet and finally by Astor Piazzolla, Zoran grew steadily louder, more expressive and more emotionally involved. His performance of Invierno Porteno was the finest I’ve ever heard. After a standing ovation (very rare for Saratoga Springs, I’ve got to tell you) he played one brief encore — The Testament of N’Amelia — also played as well as I’ve ever heard it (and I’ve heard it plenty).

All told, a very successtival festival, with many fine (and a few great) moments and hopefully the first of many more to come.