PREVIEW: Amazing Grace

Forty-seven years after the release of Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, which went on to become certified double platinum, the best-selling disk of her entire career, and the highest selling live gospel album of all time, viewers are offered a window into its recording.

Recorded in January 1972 in Los Angeles at the New Bethel Baptist Church, the footage in this documentary has never before been released. That said, it has been received with critical acclaim, a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the Best Documentary (film) award at the 50th NAACP Image Awards, among other award nominations. According to Rolling Stones, “It’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle — just some cameras, a crowd and a voice touched by God.”

Amazing Grace opened Friday, April 19 at the Michigan Theater. Don’t miss your chance to witness the Queen of Soul in this monumental documentary.

 

REVIEW: Bookmarks: Speculating the Future of the Library

Spread across campus in the Hatcher Graduate Library, Shapiro Undergraduate Library, and the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library, Bookmarks: Speculating the Future of the Library is a mixed media exploration that does just that.

The main installation in the Hatcher Graduate Library, In Search of the Pale Blue Spin, is an audio walk through the library created by Stephanie Rowden & Jennifer Metsker. Visitors may use their own personal device or borrow an mp3 player and headphones from the information desk. The walk is inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, and although I found the context of the story confusing, I must believe that that was part of the point.

More than anything, In Search of the Pale Blue Spin encourages “travelers” to stop and notice the details of the library. The calm voices in the recording, along with ethereal string bass and clarinet, usher listeners out of the everyday. You may have spent hours doing homework at the Hatcher Graduate Library, but have you ever stopped to take in the mosaic-like paintings in the North entrance, the arched ceiling of the reference room that is reminiscent of a train station, or the carvings of men in horses on the second floor? As the voice in the recording led me through the stacks in search of a mysterious book about Earth, I was able to be present in the library in a way that studying there doesn’t allow. I had never really stopped to take in the illuminated stained-glass window depicting a boat at sea, and I certainly had never noticed that it includes the letters “U M” at the top. Furthermore, I had never even been to some of the areas that the audio walk took me through.

Along the way, there are other pieces of art that are a part of Bookmarks. One of these works, Sophia Brueckner’s work Captured by an Algorithm, appears to be a set of Victorian-style porcelain plates at first look. However, further scrutiny, and a reading of the artwork’s description, reveals that the plates are printed with images made by applying Photoshop’s Photomerge algorithm to scans of romance novel covers. Each plate also includes a Kindle Popular Highlight from a romance novel. In other words, the set is a juxtaposition between what is old and what is new, and between what appears to be and what is.

Despite my enjoyment of In Search of the Pale Blue Spin, I cannot agree with its view of the library’s future. After heightening listeners’ appreciation of the library, the audio concludes, “Some of us have appointments to get to. Some of us are just tired. We need to say goodbye now. We need to say goodbye to the library, though we hope that it will still exist.” The World Book Encyclopedia may have become obsolete in the age of the Internet, but this does not mean that libraries are dead. They certainly are changing and must continue to, but evolution is the very thing that prevents extinction. In the twenty-first century, libraries have the opportunity to embrace and expand their role as epicenters of community and education, and we should be giving them new life by working to make them as accessible and relevant as possible, not mourning their death. We should not and cannot write off libraries just because the world (inevitably) is changing.

Bookmarks: Speculating the Future of the Library is free and open to the public and will continue through May 26. For more information, visit the exhibition’s webpage.

REVIEW: Philharmonia Orchestra – Two Different Programs (Night Two)

Sometimes, it is obvious that a person excels at their craft, even when you don’t have expertise in that area, and that is how I felt watching Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra last Wednesday.

The first piece on the program was Arnold Schoenberg’s Verlärte Nacht, Op. 4. The title, which means “Transfigured Night,” comes from a poem by German Poet Richard Dehmel, and the piece is based on this poem. The poem’s main event, according to the program, is “a woman’s admission to her lover that she is bearing another man’s child,” but it also notes that “it may be advisable that we…hear it as an independent work of art, without referring to the program.” Frankly, I must agree with this. The piece is much more enjoyable without the bizarre plot of Dehmel’s poem crowding the mind, even though “the piece would not have ben written in the first place had it not been for [the poem].” Regardless, it is a lengthy piece in one movement, and the prevalence of dissonance does not allow for a grounded feeling to the listener. Face-value, it sounded other-worldly, but it is also an almost exhaustingly continuous piece.

After an intermission, the second piece on the program was Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major. In some ways, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s sound during this piece reminded me of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound from their Hill Auditorium performance last fall. Both orchestras had “bass-heavy” sound structure, in that the cello and bass sections brought out the lower voices of the piece. Additionally, there was some very impressive horn playing in the latter movements of the symphony. My favorite movement of the piece was the second, the Adagio. Besides being a pleasure to listen to, the historical context of this movement is rather fascinating. According to the program, the movement’s theme came to Bruckner when he was feeling very sad because “the thought had crossed [his] mind that before long the Master [Wagner] would die.” Bruckner was deeply moved by the music of Wagner, and it was while he was in the middle of composing the second movement that he learned of Wagner’s death. In fact, he had just reached the point in the composition where there is a jarring cymbal crash – the only one in the entire symphony. Equally intriguing is the fact that this cymbal crash occurs precisely in the middle of the one-hour symphony.

I don’t believe that either of the pieces on the program will be added as new favorites of mine, but nevertheless, I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to hear Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Wednesday night performance in Hill Auditorium.

PREVIEW: Philharmonia Orchestra – Two Different Programs (Night Two)

At 7:30 pm on Wednesday, March 13, the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, with Esa-Pekka Salonen at its helm, will take the stage at Hill Auditorium for the second concert of its two night residency. Composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for the Philharmonia Orchestra, and he was formerly the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2020 he will take the role of Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.

The evening’s program will consist of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (Transfigured Night), originally a string sextet in one movement that the composer later arranged for string orchestra, followed by Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major.

Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a performance by the last major orchestra of the University Musical Society’s 2018-19 season! Tickets may be purchased online or at the Michigan League Ticket Office, and they are $12 or $20 for students, depending on seat location.

REVIEW: Yo-Yo Ma: Culture, Understanding, and Survival

In all seriousness, I left Yo-Yo Ma’s special talk on “Culture, Understanding, and Survival” thoroughly convinced that he might be one of the coolest people on the planet.

After running onto the stage in a fashion more akin to a rock star, and a far cry from the stiff persona one might stereotypically expect of a virtuoso classical musician, Mr. Ma suggested that the evening begin with a bit of music. Then, to the audience’s confusion, he walked over to the grand piano onstage (“I think I left my cello in the taxi,” he joked, even though it was laying on the stage in plain view right behind him) and played the theme from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was a simple, nontechnical melody, but placid and contemplative at the same time, and it was evident that Mr. Ma’s musical skill is not confined to the cello (Did you know that he holds a degree from Harvard…in Anthropology?).

Mr. Ma covered a lot of ground over the course of his lecture, ranging from classical music history, to the scoliosis that affected him as a young adult, to great American composers like Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland, to the bushmen of the Kalahari, Charles Darwin, and the finches of the Galapagos islands. However, one of the evening’s unifying themes was “experimentation and experience.”  These two things, Mr. Ma pointed out, are what drive both the evolution of life and the evolution of culture, and what transformed him from a “cellist to a musician.”

Mr. Ma’s wisdom and humility was evident, even from the back of Hill Auditorium’s upper balcony. As he wove together his own experiences and wisdom, but his focus was never really on himself, but on the shared human experience. He spoke with admiration of cultural citizen exemplars Michelin-starred chef José Andrés, French artist JR, and Mr. Rogers. He made it clear that he’s not any different from the rest of us in the audience (albeit much, much better at the cello!).

Hands down, the highlight of the evening for me was when Mr. Ma played the Prelude to J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3. The piece consists of repetitive and conflicting “scales and arpeggios,” he told us, telling “a story in sound,” and with its final flourish, “we are celebrating the best of what can be.” In delving into the piece, he quoted T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

At the end of his talk, he recalled this quote, “to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time,” as he again sat down at the piano and played, for the second time, the theme to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And he was right. The music, when heard a second time with Mr. Ma’s imparted wisdom swirling around my head, sounded hopeful and forward-looking, which is perhaps a reflection of the way I felt at the talk’s conclusion.

 

 

REVIEW: Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Awareness and Prevention in the Performing Arts

Immediately following a panel discussion on sexual and gender-based misconduct awareness and prevention in the performing arts, Strength & Sensitivity and Carla Dirlikov Canales of The Canales Project presented a truly fascinating performance.

 

Strength and Sensitivity is “a multimedia concert experience that blends contemporary music, poetry readings, and audience interaction to catalyze dialogue on themes of gender Dynamics, intersectional feminism, and empathy,” and their performance expounded on the themes discussed during the panel. One of the most thought-provoking works was Improvisation by Colleen Bernstein on piano. As she relayed to the audience, in the aftermath of one of the Michigan Daily articles concerning sexual misconduct and people associated with the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Colleen Bernstein sat down at the piano, opened a voice memo on her phone, and improvised at the piano to try to make sense of what she was feeling. This recording was played through the sound system in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall on Tuesday night. For the duration of Improvisation, interactive questions appeared on a screen behind the stage, and audience members could text responses to a given number. Question included “What does this community need to do to make progress towards gender equality?” and “Describe how you feel right now in one word.” As I sat and watched the responses fill the screen, changing in size according to how many people had submitted that same word, I could hear hope, grief, and a sense of tranquility permeating the music. I especially appreciated that even the performance was continuing the dialogue that had been started.

 

The second part of the performance was presented by Carla Dirlikov Canales of The Canales Project. An SMTD graduate and acclaimed opera singer, Ms. Canales started Hear Her Song as an initiative that honors “distinguished women leaders through new songs inspired by their words, written by leading female songwriters and composers.” The project has commissioned over 40 songs to date. Ms. Canales’s performance was, without question, my favorite of the evening. My only disappointment was that due to time constraints, she was able to perform only three of the five programmed songs (how I would have loved to hear “This is What” in honor of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or “What Greatness is Possible” for Jennie Boelkens!). She sang “Foster Love,” a song honoring Lynn Price, who has dedicated her life to reuniting siblings separated by foster care, and “Mercy,” honoring Sister Marilyn Lacey, founder of Mercy Beyond Borders. She then closed with the organization’s theme song, “Hear Our Song” by Katie Pfaffl. Although the audience at that point had dwindled to only about 30 people, the energy was palpable as Ms. Canales’s voice soared to the hummable, empowering anthem. In fact, she will perform that song later this month at the United Nations in celebration of International Women’s Day, which is March 8. It was an uplifting conclusion to an evening of hard conversation.

 

Tuesday’s performance on the theme “Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Awareness and Prevention in the Performing Arts” has given me hope that together, we can address the issues that need to be addressed.