It's the fashion for some people to deride so-called New Age music as just a load of air pudding or stodgy, humorless musical pap without any passion or intelligence. But if that's so, how do they explain the excellent musicians of Windham Hill?
Last Saturday, at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, two of the label's solo artists, pianists Liz Story and Philip Aaberg, along with the musical group known as Nightnoise (Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on keyboards and piano, Billy Oskay on the violin, Brian Dunning on flutes and penny whistle, and Micheal O Domhnaill on guitar) presented an evening of intelligent, lively, entertaining and, at times, downright funny music to an avid and near-capacity audience.
Their appearance was in connection with Windham Hill's current "Winter Solstice" tour, sponsored by American Airlines. The tour is a non-denominational celebration of the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, or, as Aaberg put it, the "day when things start getting brighter."
And things proved very bright indeed, thanks to these superb musicians.
It was another triumph for Maryland Hall, an affirmation of the center's commitment to bringing the best possible examples of the creative and performing arts to the area.
The evening began with the members of the tour performing a Nightnoise tune, "An Irish Carol," through a gentle mist from the back, illuminated with shafts of light.
The lighting scheme, which stayed on the dark side, served to enhance a gentle and intimate mood that complemented the music nicely.
This was followed by a duet from O Domhnaill (pronounced O'Donnell) and Dunning, who performed a very traditional, yet upbeat rendering of Van Morrison's "Moondance." The song was distinguished by some interesting flute tricks of Dunning's, tapping his flute and moving between microphones to create some unusual reverberation effects.
The music that followed displayed the same judicious combination of modern technologies, classical precision and respect for a variety of musical traditions that is the hallmark of the best of this genre.
Nightnoise has set a standard for quality in its clean and expressive musicianship that should be a goal for other performers in this style.
One other point of interest concerning Nightnoise is vocalist Triona Ni Dhomhnaill (pronounced Trina O'Donnell). Performances of this type of music tend to emphasize the instrumental, but that could change, given the purity and range of emotion in this woman's voice.
Unfortunately, either she needs some practice in articulation, or the band needs to take the instrumental amplification down a few notches so that we can understand what she's singing, at least when it's in English.
Nightnoise was followed by Liz Story, who immediately went for the high ground, performing several songs from her newest album, "Escape of the Circus Ponies." With her shy stage manner, considerable talent and strong style of play, Story soon had the audience in the palm of her hand.
During the evening, Story showed the range of her musical influences to good advantage, especially in the tune, "Broken Arrow Drive," which rocked in a gentle sort of way, and "Inside Out," which didn't.
This tune, and those that followed, allowed Story to display her classical background as she played some truly beautiful, evocative and intelligent music. She displayed a thoughtful and deliberate technique that was marvelous, especially in the last song of her set, "Church of Trees," which should be adopted by the Sierra Club as an anthem.
When it came time for Philip Aaberg's set, it was clear that he was out to have some fun.
Aaberg's style lacks the classical precision of his associates, but this should not be mistaken for any lessening of quality. It simply means that his formative influences are based more on this side of the Atlantic.
The result is that he tends to be a smooth, more relaxed performer who doesn't take himself too seriously. In particular, his composition, "Church of St. Anytime," was a delightful surprise of a boogie-woogie tune, although it could have used a tad more jump to it.
After that, Aaberg really loosened up with his version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," which kept erupting into more boogie-woogie.
Obviously, no one has briefed this man on the genre's stereotype.
But then, none of the night's performers seemed to have any truck with trendy preconceptions. They presented an evening of excellent modern music that ended far too soon.