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Zankel Opens!

Posted: 02/07/2010

Friday, February 5. At long last, after years of planning, dreaming, and building, the Arthur Zankel Music Center is open to the campus, the Saratoga Springs community, and the world. Christened with a dazzling first public performance in Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall, warmed with ceremonial words of welcome and standing ovations, the visual beauty and acoustic quality of the center's performance hall prove it the musical gem it was designed to be. How delighted the building's primary benefactor, the late Skidmore parent and trustee Arthur Zankel, would have been to see the new building alight, its concert hall full to capacity, its classrooms bustling with students still dazzled by its sophistication and capabilities.

"Although this is not the official opening of the building - that will take place next October - this is a significant and, indeed, transformative moment in the history of the College," observed President Philip A. Glotzbach in his welcoming remarks before Ensemble ACJW's inaugural performance. "This building represents the next chapter in our ongoing story of our commitment to the arts as an integral dimension of a Skidmore education.

"This building is both a gateway and a crossroads. It is a gateway to welcome visitors to the campus, and it is a crossroads where performers and speakers from a wide spectrum of disciplines and interests will come to entertain, challenge, and inspire the community."

Having moderated a pre-concert discussion with four ACJW members, Thomas Denny, professor and chair of music, then returned to the stage to deliver his welcome.

"From the trenches -- from the perspective of the Music Department, its faculty and students -- it's very hard to describe what this moment really means. What this wonderful Ladd Hall and the Zankel Music Center mean to us. It's hard to describe the emotions. And it's hard to unpack the layers of everything that has gone into the process over the last nearly quarter-century since we began dreaming about this, and moving to a concept, and then to a plan, and then to the construction process."

"There is something about music that we all know is very powerful, and spiritual, and cuts to the heart of one's being," he continued. "It's also true that a space as capacious and as beautiful as this has some of those same powers. And when we think about it being used for the sounds and silence of the wonderful art of music; when we think of the way in which it's bringing community together in such a palpable and wonderful way; when we think of the way in which light will be penetrating through the south window; and when we think about the ways in which sound, in just a few moments, will be coming off the stage, being launched into this space and vibrating between person and person--I really don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that this is truly a magical moment, a magical process, that we are in."

The test of both the hall and the evening came when Denny declared, "Let the music begin." From start to finish, ACJW played jaw-dropping, exquisite music. With the eight musicians taking their place onstage in various configurations as required by each musical composition, they began with Prokofiev's Quintet in G Minor. It was composed in 1924 for a small traveling French dance company for Trapeze, a ballet set in a circus. Daringly experimental in its time, the music uses a rich range of tonal complexity and instrumental colors played to full effect by the ACJW quintet of oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and bass.

David Bruce's Gumboots, for clarinet and string quartet, begins with a movement of aching beauty, a slow, sweeping passage that gives way to five infectiously lively dances. Bruce's work takes off from the gumboot dancing created by black prisoners working in South African gold mines during apartheid. Chained together in their Wellington boots as they worked in often-flooded tunnels, the miners found rhythmic ways to slap chains and boots together. Drawing on that spirit, Bruce's work, as explained in the concert's well-written program, is meant as "an abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance." A tour de force for a clarinetist, the piece was deliciously performed by two ACJW violinists, a violist, and a cellist, with Sarah Beaty doing a star turn on clarinet. An exhilarating piece, Gumboots is loaded with vigorous rhythms, lovely melodic lines, and some amazingly percussive plucks, chirps, and pocks.

The final work of the evening was Shostakovich's powerful Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, a work in three movements for violin, cello, and piano composed in 1944. By turns haunting, demonic, dirge-like, grotesque, and emotional, the piano work was composed on the death of the composer's close friend, and in shocked reaction to news about Nazi death camps liberated by Soviet troops. The piece held Ladd Hall's capacity audience hushed and silent.

Through it all, the soaring three-story glass wall behind the performers dramatically reflected the sparkle of lights from inside the hall against the panorama of the night campus, a tracery of bare, spotlighted tree branches just outside the hall; car headlights arcing like meteors along the loop road; the trees fringing South Park dark against the night sky.

When the music ended, the hall erupted with a whooping, whistling ovation that goes on until all eight musicians appeared onstage for bows. One spun his index finger in the air, inviting applause for the house itself. The applause roared back.


See Times Union critic Joseph Dalton's review of the inaugural performance.

See our chronicle of the move from Filene into Zankel.

Click here to see Carnegie Hall video showing Ensemble ACJW rehearsing Gumboots in Zankel.

Photos by: Sam Brook '12, Mark Bolles and Stefan Cohen