• From the Academy: Leelanee Sterrett on 'Steampunk' at Skidmore

    Leelanee SterrettWe've recently returned from our biannual residency at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and I can say with no hesitation that it was the best week of my Academy experience so far. The mission of our five-day residency was to infiltrate as many corners of the campus and community as possible with an exciting and fresh approach to classical music. We did this through a number of unannounced performances in non-traditional settings: student dormitories at 9 PM, a nursing home the next morning, and the campus library on a quiet afternoon. We became an integral part of the music department by appearing in composition, history, and orchestration classes; teaching individual lessons; and sitting in to play with the school orchestra and several chamber groups. And, of course, our visit culminated in an Ensemble ACJW performance featuring works by Beethoven, Janáček, and the world premiere of David Bruce's Steampunk.


    Rehearsing with David Bruce for the Steampunk performance.

    All of these aspects of our residency allowed us to become a big part of the Skidmore community. The nature of our unconventional, informal performances—"informances"—brought classical music into the contexts and spaces of everyday life. A favorite moment of mine, for instance, was when our woodwind quintet performed Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles in the common area of a campus dorm. Our audience was an unusually attentive and enthusiastic crowd of fifty underclassmen in their pajamas. Dressed as we were in jeans and winter boots, and sitting between vending machines and a row of mismatched couches, the atmosphere was relaxed and casual. It was conversational, even, as we paused between movements to share some insight about the music, introduce ourselves, and talk about what we do as young artists. We constantly hear about the need to break down that invisible, but often insurmountable, barrier between the concert stage and the audience. This performance, crammed as we all were into the same small common room, with the front row of the audience lounging on the floor not five feet from the ensemble, accomplished exactly that—and not just in terms of physical space. Presenting the music in this format was sheer fun. It gave us the freedom to bring our individual personalities into our speaking and playing, and I think the audience enjoyed seeing how those pieces came together during the performance.

    In this experience, I felt that the channels of interaction between the musicians, the audience, and the notes written by the composer were wide open. This was classical music presented under a microscope, in a way, and the human element of the whole endeavor was so much more evident than it is in a concert hall. In the end, the piece came off brilliantly. While packing up afterwards, I even heard one student singing the tune from the first movement as she headed back to her room. Removed from the trappings of a formal concert presentation, the door was open for new listeners to hear classical music in a fresh way.

    This sort of experience, which occurred many times on a daily basis, really made me feel that Ensemble ACJW was a part of something very meaningful happening at Skidmore. We had so many outlets for sharing our love of music, and the community as a whole was extremely welcoming and supportive. The whole week was also an incredible bonding experience for us as a group. There's a real feeling of camaraderie and friendship among this class of Academy fellows, which only became stronger after spending nearly every moment of the residency together. There really is something special about playing music with good friends, and in our final concert at Skidmore, many of us were struck by how exciting it was to perform together. We're getting to a point now where communication while playing is becoming effortless, and people feel free to take risks, try new things, and just have fun in bringing the music to life.

    For my part, I had another realization during the performance: After all we had done that week, Skidmore felt like home. Sitting on stage, I had an overwhelming sense of comfort and belonging. In just five days, we had really become a part of the community. That was an incredible feeling, and a testament to how enriching this residency was. Now back in New York, I look forward to continuing my work in The Academy with a renewed enthusiasm for sharing great music on a personal, earnest, human level.
     

    —Leelanee Sterrett
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