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Continuous Classics 

click to enlarge Cheryl Setzer and Joel Sachs direct the CONTINUUM chamber ensemble, which performs on March 4 in Beacon.
  • Cheryl Setzer and Joel Sachs direct the CONTINUUM chamber ensemble, which performs on March 4 in Beacon.
Surrounded by iPods and supermarkets playing Gwen Stefani, one forgets that music is really made by human fingers on strings and keys. Yet even in 2007, it is engrossing to watch first-rate musicians play. Across their faces numerous identities flash: poet, surgeon, airplane pilot, detective, lover.

CONTINUUM, a four-person ensemble, will appear at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon on March 4. Its members are pianists Cheryl Setzer and Joel Sachs, Renee Jolles on violin, and Benjamin Fingland on clarinet. They will be performing music composed in the last 20 years. This genre of music has no name (which is a good sign). “Classical” sounds wrong. (Introducing yourself at a party as a “classical composer” is like saying, “I’m a 12th-century saint, since “classical” connotes “dead.”) “Serious music” sounds grim. “New music” is vague, as is “concert music.” “Contemporary music” must logically include Celine Dion.

CONTINUUM is in its 41st year. The group’s original purpose was to extend the classical repertoire. Its first concert, at Columbia University in the spring of 1967, featured the works of Anton von Webern, at that time an unappreciated composer. Since then, the group has performed experimental pieces by John Cage, the first American concert of works by several Soviet avant-garde composers, and even some electronic music.

In the meantime, music itself has changed. The severe, atonal mid-20th century art music has given way to a rebirth of rhythm and melody—and influences from many nations. The Beacon concert will feature works by Estonian Arvo Part, Scottish-born Thea Musgrave, Argentinean Pablo Ortiz, Germany’s Ursula Mamlok, Mexican Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and American Paul Chihara, who was born in a Japanese detention camp in California. A dual-piano composition commissioned from Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra, titled “2X3,” appears on CONTINUUM’s upcoming album of Sierra’s work, to be released on New Albion. Sierra, who teaches at Cornell University, merges Afro-Caribbean music with the Western tradition.

At Beacon, CONTINUUM will perform two piano duets. A number of composers are now writing for two pianos, because there is a demand from two-piano teams. The piano, of course, is a percussion instrument, so a two-piano group could be seen as being equivalent to one with two drum sets (like the Grateful Dead).

CONTINUUM specializes in variety of instrumentation. Besides the two-piano works, there’s a piece for clarinet and piano, one for violin and piano, a four-handed piano composition, and two pieces for violin, clarinet, and piano. There will be four players at this concert, but sometimes CONTINUUM gets much larger—even attaining the size of an orchestra. Last December the ensemble played in Jakarta, Indonesia with 22 musicians.

When told that the concert sounds like fun, Sachs, who has been with CONTINUUM for 40 years, said, “A lot of it is fun, and even where it’s serious, it’s engaging and colorful.”

CONTINUUM will perform at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon on March 4 at 4pm. (845) 297-9243; www.howlandmusic.org.

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  • Top chamber group CONTINUUM performs at Beacon’s Howland Cultural Center.

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