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Two Nights At Tully: Professor Hawking, Yo-Yo Ma & Kids With Fiddles

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Thanks to invitations from two generous friends, I had the distinct delight last week of spending consecutive musical nights at the magnificent new Alice Tully Hall. Each evening's concert was quite different from the other -- but in the end, both proved genuinely similar in spirit.

The first -- dubbed "A Performing Arts Salute to Science' -- marked the opening of the 2010 annual World Science Festival. It also honored one of our contemporary giants of science, Stephen W. Hawking, who was present. Though now physically immobilized by the neuro-muscular dystrophy that plagues his body, the brilliant physicist spoke to us (through his electronic synthesizer) of his joy at still being very much alive, of still playing "a small part in this great story," of still being very much a man of the cosmology and theoretical physics he has devoted his life to.

The eclectic concert salute to Hawking and to the sciences themselves was brilliantly conceived, directed and produced by Damian Woetzel, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer who has become one of this city's most outstanding renaissance men. The musical numbers, most introduced by the ever charming Alan Alda, enchanted the packed audience. They ranged from "South Pacific" revival star Danny Burstein belting out Monty Python's forever clever Galaxy Song to super Soprano Emalie Savoy superbly singing Dvorak's O Silver Moon, to cellist Yo-Yo Ma appearing as part of a small master musicians' group called the "Silk Road Ensemble". Ma & Co. performed a slightly westernized version of Persian music master Kayhan Kalhor's enthralling Ascending Bird.

The second part of the evening continued the ascending bird allegory, with the orchestra of St Luke's playing Brian Green, Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang's fascinating modern take on the boy who dared to try and fly. Icarus at the Edge of Time is the tale of a young boy aboard a super-modern space ship who dares to explore the perimeters of a black hole the ship encounters, only to forget that as per Einstein, the super density of a black hole causes time to slow to down. He returns 10,000 years later. The Green/Hwang narrative was read by the ever energetic John Thigow, the music et al were accompanied by a fascinating visual film presentation by the British team of "Al + Al" (Al Holmes and Al Taylor).

The next night was the annual Spring Gala Concert of one of the most marvelous but sadly least recognized musical organizations in this city, the InterSchool Orchestras of New York (ISO). Now celebrating its 38th year, ISO is dedicated to providing multifaceted classical music education programs to children and young people of all ages, from all parts and economic strata of the city. It provides them with professional lessons, instruments, and the great but challenging possibility of actually playing in one of ISO's five graded orchestras, symphonic band and chamber music ensembles. Those who can afford to, pay for lessons; those whose families cannot, benefit from a scholarship and sliding-scale tuition. No one with any talent is ever excluded. And once someone ranks for the ISO Philharmonic, there is no charge at all. Funding comes from foundation grants and private donations.

"In addition to bringing them to an understanding of classical music that many might never have had," says longtime board member Rita Fredricks Salzman, "it's a life changing experience. It gives them a sense of pride, of identity and of responsibility. They are part of an orchestra that cannot perform without them."

The opening numbers featured ISO's "Carnegie Hill Orchestra," an ensemble of its youngest grade school musicians in performances of music by Richard Wagner and Aaron Copland. They were conducted by Yoon Jae Lee. Here enthusiasm and charm made up for occasional soft spots (I swear the wire-spectacled first violinist's height was barely two times the length of of his mini violin bow).

The performances by the older, high school aged ISO Concert Orchestra (conductor Eugene Minor) and the ISO Symphony (conductor George Edward Stelluto) ) of Mozart's Serenade No. 9 and Gabriel Faure's Masques et Bergemasques were near perfection as was the Symphony's accompaniment of soprano Lauren Flanagan's masterful performance of Glen Roven's evocative Midnight Moon (Ms Roven, an ISO stalwart, received cheers worthy of a basketball star from orchestra members on stage and in the audience).

The Symphony also accompanied a performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Op. 56, by master guest musicians violinist Daniel Froschauer, cellist Eckart Schwarz-Sculz, and brilliant young Israeli pianist Nimrod David Pfeffer.

Altogether a marvelous evening for any music lover and a fitting continuation of the spirit of young Icarus that marked the previous evening's musical tribute to the sciences. The difference: unlike Icarus, the youth of ISO managed to successfully transcend and soar aloft on wings of music.

For more information on ISO, contact: http://www.isorch.org/