GLOVERSVILLE - Antique fiddle tunes and timeless songs filled the air Friday night as SkyHeart Studio opened its newly renovated performance space with a concert by the folk duo Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
Owners Michael and Hannah McAllister welcomed an audience of nearly 200 people to the inaugural performance in the concert hall on the third floor of the former YWCA building at Bleecker Square. The wood-floored, high-ceilinged room had served as a gymnasium for several decades before they bought the building last year, but Hannah McAllister said using the space for performances reconnects it with its earlier history as a hotel ballroom and concert hall.
The McAllisters said they learned the room was at one time known as "Arietta Hall" - Arietta means "little melody" in Italian - so they decided to restore that name as of Friday's concert.
Michael and Hannah McAllister, owners of SkyHeart Studio, greet the audience Friday night and introduce performers Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who gave the first concert in the newly renovated Arietta Hall, on the third floor of the former YWCA?building in Gloversville. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
"Welcome to Arietta Hall," Hannah McAllister told the audience. "And welcome to downtown Gloversville."
In an emotional introduction, the couple told of their ongoing effort to establish a cultural center in the community. Two years ago, they founded SkyHeart Studio in a loft apartment on South Main Street, hosting performances by local and touring musicians for small audiences of about 30 or 40 people. Last year, they bought the former YWCA building and converted the former chapel on its second floor into a performance space and gallery. The renovation of the much larger third-floor concert hall, with its proscenium stage and grand piano, was a months-long effort.
The building dates back to 1895 and was built on the foundation of a previous structure that had burned. In its early days, the concert hall hosted "masquerade balls, large dances, parties and, in 1914, a poultry exhibit (complete with lectures from Cornell professors)," according to the program for Friday's show.
The performance by Ungar and Mason was by far the most ambitious event SkyHeart has brought to Gloversville. The Sacandaga Valley Arts Network partnered with the McAllisters to finance the event. Additional support was provided by a number of local businesses and community organizations.
"I'm very pleased with what we have here tonight," SVAN President John Spaeth said Friday, reacting to the size and enthusiasm of the audience. "Based on this success, I can foresee us doing another event like this again."
Hannah McAllister praised Ungar and Mason as fellow "community-builders."
"They graciously understood the kind of project we have undertaken here," she said, noting their willingness to perform at an untested venue in a small town.
Explaining they have performed for three presidents at the White House, Ungar introduced a medley of tunes with a presidential theme - "Jefferson's Hornpipe," "Lincoln's Hornpipe" and "Devil's Dream" - inviting individual listeners to "dedicate the last tune to the president - or candidate - of your choice."
The duo performed two strong sets of acoustic Americana, featuring Ungar's masterful fiddling on several instrumentals and Mason's solid guitar and vocals on classic songs such as Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and the Carter Family's "Little Schoolhouse on the Hill." For variety, the players took turns picking tunes on a vintage Gibson mandolin, and Mason accompanied several of Ungar's fiddle pieces on piano.
Ungar and Mason, who are based in the Catskills but perform internationally, are known for contributing Ungar's tune "Ashokan Farewell" to the Grammy-winning soundtrack of the 1990 Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."
They performed that signature piece without amplification, stepping away from the microphone to take advantage of Arietta Hall's "19th-century sound system," which showcased the acoustic clarity of the room.
To conclude, Ungar and Mason led the audience in a sing-along on "This Land Is Your Land," in honor of the recent 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth.
"It's an honor for us to christen Arietta Hall in its new incarnation," Ungar told the audience. "It's really amazing how the community has come together to make this happen."
For more information about SkyHeart Studio and its schedule of upcoming events, see its website, www.skyheartstudio.com.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.