Stars Crossing in New York’s Electric City

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Memorial Chapel at Union College, Schenectady, New York
Memorial Chapel at Union College, Schenectady, New York

Union College’s amazing concert series perseveres through a plague of performer illnesses.

It is simple enough to dismiss the once vital Schenectady New York, with the dwindling fortunes of General Electric. The town with a hard-to-pronounce name famously malapropped in Charlie Kaufman’s SynecdocheNew Yorkwas once the seat of the largest employer and economic force in the upstate New York region. The fates have been unkind, and its poor environmental record coupled with challenges transitioning to renewable energy has dealt a fatal blow.

Union College, in the heart of this city, is one of the more exclusive and expensive colleges in the nation. Besides a strong academic reputation, it boasts a surprisingly elegant campus with an exceptional Gothic style rotunda (The Nott Memorial) and the acoustically renowned Memorial Chapel, a venue for music.

Pianist, Jonathan Biss

What is most surprising about the Union College Concert Series is the array of international stars that perform there with ticket prices a fraction of those in major metropolitan areas.  With the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, Yefim Bronfman, Jonathan Biss, Mark Padmore, Simon Keenlyside, Jeremy Denk and others, the celebrity or quality of classical music there is unmatched in the region.

Derek Delaney, the indefatigable artistic director has scored remarkably well in shepherding the series’ stellar bookings and some nightmarish outages.  Quite unexpectedly, he had a Herculean salvaging task through a series of last-minute health-related performer cancelations that reached a dramatic climax in Jonathan Biss’s near syncope halting his performance of Beethoven’s opus 111 Sunday, April 28.  Mr. Biss was filling in the last minute for an ailing Uchida.  Both sets of illnesses followed Piotr Anderszewski’s illness and cancelation a month before.  For that concert, Yefim Bronfman, always a hero (immortalized by Philip Roth), substituted for the Polish virtuoso.

Mr. Delaney impressively did not miss a beat in quickly finding and replacing greats with other greats alternatives. The obvious appreciation felt and seen by the audience (packed each time) for the star-crossed season was evident. I cannot imagine what a frazzling and unnerving experience this was, pulling pianists out of a hat and seeing the last wilt on stage.  His élan at rebounding from human circumstance was amazing, and the series is lucky to have someone as stalwart and resourceful as him.

On the following day, everyone in attendance received an email from Mr. Delaney assuring us that Mr. Biss was recovering from a bout of dehydration (he had been performing the previous night in Philadelphia).  Even when Mr Biss left the stage and the opus 111 midway, the audience cheered.

No one there takes this series for granted: the quality of music making and the economy of the tickets bespeaks the healthy amperage of classical music in this once prosperous town.

It would be a shame not to mention Mr. Biss’s performance of three other Beethoven sonatas: the opus 90, the opus 1, No. 3, and the opus 14, No. 2 in the concert’s first half. Although a bit rushed at times, his interpretations were, nonetheless, piquant and passionate: a real treat. The two-movement opus 111 was meant to balance the similarly structured opus 90 at the start of the concert.

Previously this season on December 9, 2018, Jonathan Biss performed Beethoven’s opus 31, No. 3, Haydn, Mozart, and a brilliant reading of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.

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