reflections

Summer at Skidmore

By Brad Balliett

Every time I return to Saratoga Springs for the Decoda-Skidmore Chamber Music Institute, I'm reminded of what an immersive experience it is for everyone involved - for students, for Decoda faculty, for our enthusiastic young staff, for our guest artists, and for the community. Life outside of the Skidmore campus mercifully comes to a halt as we convene to have real conversations about how to engage audiences, how to make our enthusiasm for our art infectious, and how to rise to ever higher artistic standards.

As always, music comes first, and this year's DSCMI offered a bracing and refreshing range of concerts, both by faculty and students. Decoda was thrilled to return to Ladd Auditorium at the Arthur Zankel Music Center, with its stellar acoustics, to play a program of Stravinsky, Brahms, and a new arrangement by this year's composer-in-residence, Sarah Kirkland Snyder just for Decoda. Not only was the new piece a joy to work on, but we enjoyed watching Sarah make a real, lasting impression on the students in her session about forging careers. Her humility, intelligence, and open-mindedness served as an inspiration and model for these young musicians (and her wise words were not lost on the faculty either!).

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Later in the festival, Decoda returned to the Tang Museum on the Skidmore campus for a program of music arranged by its own members, including a set of charming rags by William Bolcom (which will be reprised at Carnegie Hall on January 22, 2020). The audience also experienced music by Reza Vali, Shawn Conley, Olivier Messaien, and a mammoth new work for bassoon and violin (by yours truly) which showed off Anna Elashvili's prowess on both the 1/8th- and 1/16th-sized violins. Finally, Decoda presented a program of lesser known composers (Biber, Lutoslawski, and Janacek) at a concert with a new partner - the historic and legendary Caffe Lena in downtown Saratoga Springs. Not only was the sold-out crowd extremely appreciative of this unusual music, it was very fun to play on the same stage that has hosted legends like Bob Dylan and Don McLean.

The students also present a host of great concerts -- each student played in two chamber groups, performing not only in Ladd Auditorium, but also in Filene Hall and in various community venues. They got a chance to sharpen their skills in a variety of areas, including public speaking and designing activities for very young audiences. Each group rose to the formidable challenges in unique ways.

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Outside of rehearsals, coachings, and concerts, students learned in other ways: the Marshmallow Challenge shed light on collaborative dynamics and burned off energy in rousing games of Frisbee-Soccer (both led by violist Nate Schram), in addition to participating in interactive Town Hall lectures on a variety of topics led by rotating members of the Decoda faculty.

At the end of the two weeks, students were asked to sum up their experience in a single word. Although many provided excellent and inspiring words, the smiles and tears of the participants as the final session concluded spoke volumes more than any words could. We just can't wait to be back for the 7th summer in July 2020!"

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