JOSEPH DALTON Staff writer
Section: LIFE-SCENE,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, October 22, 2004

With typical brevity and wit, Joseph Fennimore has already composed his own epitaph: ``Often wrong. Never in doubt.'' It speaks well to the contradictions and apparent folly of Fennimore's livelihood. In a society where high art is little valued, he's a driven and earnest composer who refers to his pieces as ``ditties.'' Also a virtuoso pianist who studied with the legendary teacher Rosina Lhevinne -- as did Van Cliburn, Misha Dichter and John Browning -- Fennimore's performances these days are heard mostly on CD.

True artists will identify with Fennimore's all-consuming motivation, even if he expresses it in an inimitable fashion.

``With music, it has to be a deep-within emotional need and some sort of genetic predisposition for sensual satisfaction through the ears,'' says Fennimore, 64. ``Maybe some sexual nerve endings are in the ears instead of somewhere else.''

Born in New York City and raised in Ballston Spa and Colonie, Fennimore, a current Albany resident, made his debut with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra as a seventh-grader in 1953, playing Hadyn's D Major Piano Concerto. ``I still have a tape (of the concert) -- it's not laughable,'' he says.

His latest debut is also with the SSO. The new Tenor Concerto for trombone and orchestra will receive its world premiere Sunday at Proctor's Theatre in Schenectady with soloist Andrew Pollack and conductor Charles Schneider.

``He's one of the finest and most underappreciated American composers today, as well as a phenomenal pianist,'' says Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott. A Schenectady native and former piano student of Fennimore, Kennicott also has been a music critic for Newsday and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

``I find in his music, qualities that are really rare to be well managed within the same piece, like melancholy and playfulness, lyricism and unpredictability. His music makes me think of composers as diverse as Poulenc, Brahms and Faure, and it deserves a wider audience,'' says Kennicott.

``Joe's stuff is very special and unique, and that makes him very important to the area,'' says conductor Charles Schneider, who also conducted the SSO in a double-header of Fennimore's two short piano concertos, with the composer as soloist in 1998.

``We have lots of laughs, yet he's very serious about his music,'' say Schneider, who describes Fennimore's typical sound as ``a French elegance.''

It's a style that comes to the forefront in one of Fennimore's best known works, ``Berlitz: Introduction to French,'' a light-hearted setting of the classic language guide. The song cycle was recorded by mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, accompanied by Fennimore at the piano. It's on one of five discs on Albany Records that showcase Fennimore as composer and pianist.

Musical pursuits

Although he has composed music since childhood, when Fennimore left the Capital Region after high school, he set off to be a pianist. But it didn't take long for others to notice his compositional abilities.

At the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he received the first concert performance of his music. It was by fellow student Ronald McKay who also happened to be a native of the Capital Region. The son of longtime Albany Democratic committeeman and party stalwart Emil McKay, he took the stage name Yvar Mikhashoff. He went on to great notoriety as a pianist, composer and impresario before he died of AIDS in 1993 at age 52.

Fennimore was included in one of Mikhashoff's more famous endeavors, ``The Waltz Project,'' a collection of modern waltzes by 17 composers that also included John Cage, Virgil Thomson and Philip Glass. It was recorded and published and became the basis for Peter Martins' dance of the same name for New York City Ballet.

Also at Eastman, Fennimore met another pianist, Gordon Hibberd, who has been his companion since 1958. After Eastman, the two moved to New York City so that Fennimore could begin studies with Lhevinne at The Juilliard School. And in the early 1970s, they took one of the first apartments in the Westbeth Artists Community, a massive building in Greenwich Village that once served as a research center for Bell Telephone Laboratories. In the mid-1960s, it was redesigned by architect Richard Meier for artist housing.

Composer Gerald Busby, a longtime Manhattan resident, recalls attending many intimate evening dinner parties during which Fennimore would dash off performances of major works like the complete Chopin Etudes.

``Joe is quietly flamboyant and intellectual, and he likes to impress you,'' says Busby. ``He knows obscure, arcane novelists of 19th-century England and wants to be a memorable character himself -- and he is, there's no question about it.''

Fennimore and Hibberd left New York City in the early 1980s. In explaining his departure, Fennimore cites the specter of AIDS, which killed scores of his friends. ``The cream of a generation was wiped out,'' he says.

And Fennimore's charm, which can work so well in intimate settings, never translated to the schmoozing and self-promotion needed to get his music heard by a wider audience. ``I didn't play the game well,'' he says.

Albany couple

For more than 20 years, Fennimore and Hibberd have lived and worked across the street from Lincoln Park in Albany in a house they bought from Emil McKay. As with any pair of artists, the couple has had their financial ups and downs over the years -- ``I can make a penny scream,'' says Fennimore. But today, the two-family house is paid off, and they occupy both floors.

While Hibberd is in demand across the region as an accompanist, Fennimore teaches piano in the house's first-floor music room, which is crowded with two grand pianos and a harpsichord.

Over the years, three of his proteges have, like their teacher, played with the Schenectady Symphony. But Fennimore has outpriced himself for most parents to send their children. He currently charges $50 an hour which attracts more dedicated students and he seems the happier for it, though motivating adults can be challenging, too.

``I make them love me -- that's how I get then to work. ... They've got to satisfy somebody,'' explains Fennimore.

A longtime observer of the local music scene, Fennimore finds great encouragement in the work of the Empire State Youth Orchestra. And it was through ESYO that Hibberd accompanied trombonist Andrew Pollack and steered him to Fennimore's music.

Tenor Concerto

Fennimore explains that the new Tenor Concerto began at least a decade ago as a cello concerto but was never completed. Although the musical ideas finally came together for the sound of a trombone, he envisions rescoring it for a number of different instruments all in the tenor range, including French horn, tenor sax and cello.

Fennimore also just likes the name.

`` `Trombone Concerto' doesn't have any panache, no glitz or cachet. Who would remember the title?'' muses Fennimore. ``Whereas `Tenor Concerto' pricks people's curiosity because they'll think there's a singer in it, though there isn't.''

Pollack says the piece is challenging but rewarding.

``A lot of the current trombone literature is regrettable -- they don't take advantage of all the trombone has to offer. Joe's concerto takes no prisoners and makes you work for everything,'' says Pollack, who recently completed an engineering degree at Harvard and is currently enrolled in a graduate program at Cornell University.

He also suggests that most enticing possibility for any composer -- future performances. ``All of my friends would love to play the piece, I'm sure. I won't hide this from the trombone community,'' he says.

As for Fennimore, after a bow on stage this afternoon at Proctor's, he'll return to giving lessons and writing on the occasional commission. A solo harpsichord piece is next on the agenda.

``I just try to stay interested,'' he says, with total deadpan. ``I'm not tired of eating, I'm not tired of music, I'm not tired of sex. Those are the most important things.''

Joseph Dalton can be reached at 454-5478 or by e-mail at jdalton@timesunion.com.



Charles Schneider, conductor

Where: Proctor's Theatre, 432 State St., Schenectady

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Program: World premiere of Joseph Fennimore's Tenor Concerto, with Andrew Pollock, tenor trombone, plus Beethoven's ``Egmont'' Overture and Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, with 10th-grade pianist Winnie Tong, Offenbach's Overture to ``Le Voyage dans Le Lune'' and Smetana's ``Moldau.''

Tickets: $12-$22, available at the box office

Info: 346-6204