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

Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most famous classical musicians of all time and is probably the most famous cellist. He is internationally renowned and has won 18 grammys. You’ve definitely heard his name before, but now you can also hear him speak! He is coming to give a talk at Michigan about his career and belief in the power of culture to generate trust and understanding.  Using examples from his life he will talk about the role of culture in shaping our future.

I know talks can be boring, and it’s a little deterring that there is a price tag to this event with no reception following, but seeing Yo-Yo Ma is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This guy was awarded the National Medal of Arts and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I am also secretly hoping that he will also have a cello on him, and play some music for everyone to hear.

REVIEW: Las Cafeteras

This group boldly marched on the Michigan Theater stage yelling and rallying everyone in the audience to start standing, clapping and dancing. They did this while strumming a tune on their jarna jarocha’s (an instrument that looks like a blend between a guitar and a ukelele). I stayed sitting because I prefer when bands run on and immediately start playing great music that ignites everyone to naturally stand, or after proving their worth rally everyone to stand up. However, my bad mood quickly changed when the music started playing because it was very fun and upbeat music. Music that would be very hard to be upset while listening too.

This concert had a lot of ups and downs for me. Which I will explain in the following paragraphs.

I enjoyed the lead male singer’s voice. It was harsh, nasally, and whiney, but all in a good way.  It was very unique and could be the voice of a TV shows opening song. He also acted as the hype man of the group. After seeing a couple of latino shows this year, I realize that it is custom for the audience to break out into big applause and start hollering when the singer yells a phrase they like. He did a good job at this role I assume because even though I don’t understand Spanish, he got the people sitting behind me very exuberant.

I was not a big fan of the lead females singers voice, but only in the context of the music. She has a very beautiful voice, it is airy, fragile, and soft, which is great, but didn’t fit the style of the music well and didn’t sound good when harmonizing with the other singers. I even had trouble hearing her sometimes.  Granted there were songs, always the slower and stiller ones, where her voice sounded beautiful. These were actually by far my favorite songs of the night.

There were some good songs. Whenever the lead female singer was singing a song with the lyrics “I Love You”, which mentioned above also happened to be the slower songs, it was very pleasant and beautiful. They played an Afro-mexican song that had great instrumentals. My personal favorite song had a Spanish name that translated to “The Most Beautiful Ugly Person” or “Long Live the Ugly”. My favorite musician of the night was the lead jarana player. He had the ability to play extremely fast, and was the only one who offered some instrumental variety. My favorite scene was when the lead singer started tap dancing to one of the songs while simultaneously showing the lyrics in sign language to the audience.

Most of the songs sounded like they had the exact same tune, background, and beat. It was like I was listening to one song for most of the night which got a little boring. I also did not enjoy the rapping, which dominated the second half of the performance. I thought it sounded childish with the tuney music in the background, and none of the English lyrics were very clever, it was all pretty cliche. It felt like the whole thing was a freestyle they came up with on the spot (to their credit some of it was).

As both an up and down for me, the group was very political. They talked/sang about migration, healthcare for all, Trayvon Martin and other victims of racism and police brutality, environmental issues, and our current presidency. It was mainly just generic chanter, which I didn’t care to hear unless it directly related to a song. I did really enjoy one line that was said: “We got to get organized, how can we get organized if we can’t dance together”.

REVIEW: Broadway Our Way

Bravo Bravo Bravo! Congratulations to the School of Musical Theatre for putting on this fantastic show. It was so original, unique, talented, and incredible that I went back on Sunday to see it a second time. To sum up this performance it is classic Broadway songs performed in the american musical styles of gospel, jazz, pop, and rhythmic blues. The students got to work with the composer Michael McElroy himself, which explains why it was so good.

I was surprised when what looked like 50 students walked onto the stage to perform the first song “Answer Me” from The Bands Visit. Most Broadway songs are sung by one or a couple of people. Also, the instruments accompanying the singers consisted of one guitarist, one bassist, one pianist, one cellist, and a percussionist, not a full orchestra by any means. I was curious if having so many people sing the Broadway songs would make the music lose it’s Broadway character and the meaning originally intended by the original composer. This did happen with a lot of the songs, but new character and new meaning was put back into the songs with the re-composition, and the students did a great job adding their own flair to every song.  Most of the songs performed throughout the night featured closer to 20 students, which is still a lot for the Broadway songs they were performing.

I most enjoyed the songs where all the students were on stage, I felt these songs were the most powerful. Every song performed was great, but some stood out. “Answer Me” was sung with a hushed whisper sound, but the crescendos were perfect and the buildup ignited what felt like a flame inside of me. “Luck Be A Lady” was performed by a small group of six guys, and was one of my favorites of the night. The harmonizing in the song was stellar, there was a big range of high to low, and the song still accentuated every individual singer’s voice. The two guys who had short solos during this song killed it with their high voices. They weren’t singing in falsetto, but it was still a higher pitch than I could ever achieve. “Silver Lining” was sung wonderfully by a group of five and was the only song to feature a guitar solo, which is important to me as a guitarist. “Defying Gravity” was the strongest song. It wasn’t just loud, it was powerful and got me feeling excited. “You Will be found” was the most gospely song. The girls and guys seemed to face off with two back to back songs, “Love to Me” performed by the guys and “Journey To The Past” performed by the girls. I think the girls did a better job.

There was no stories, props, or scripts, but this didn’t mean it wasn’t a very visual performance. All the students were wearing different outfits and there were choreographed dances. The best dance was during “A Whole New World”this was a ton of fun to watch. There were so many different personalities on stage. Some students were singing with a giant smile while others furrowed their eyebrows. Some students did a lot of acting while they sang with strong facial movements, while others just seemed to sing with a straight face.

Genuinely awesome performance.


REVIEW: Wang QingSong Beijing/Detroit

This art exhibit focuses on an image taken by artist Wang QingSong called The Bloodstained Shirt (2018). It also shows the process Wang went through to create this image. This image is a remake of the famous drawing The Bloodstained Shirt (1959). You can see this exhibit in UMMA until May.
The message of the artwork relates to communities that have been dispossessed. Detroit is a city that has been plagued by gentrification, especially with the New Detroit movement. Physical gentrification is taking place as high rents shove disadvantaged natural residents out of their homes. At the same time cultural gentrification is taking place because of idiopathic empathy. New ventures and businesses are stealing the stories of the Detroit residents by labelling themselves and their businesses as resilient and making a come back from struggle. This is a facade that is denying the voices of the actual victims of Detroit. One person’s opportunity is often another person’s eviction. The New Detroit movement needs to recognize that they are not saving Detroit, they are taking it over it. Bringing privilege into Detroit and forcing out vulnerable people is not fixing the problem. Art exhibits like this promote collaboration instead of gentrification and hopefully will encourage the people of Detroit to rewrite their own cities history.
This artwork captures gentrification by showing neglected ruins of Detroit. It relates it to similar struggles and issues happening in China by impersonating the drawing The Bloodstained Shirt (1959). This photo has been banned in China!
The photo features the artist himself and many Detroit locals. I know some Michigan students and other people involved with the University participated as models for the photo. Shout out to anyone on campus who was involved.
In addition to the photo The Bloodstained Shirt (2018) , I included other photos featured in the exhibit: the clothes Wang QingSong was wearing in the photograph, the bloodstained shirt that is held up in the photograph, some photos of the making of the photograph and the volunteers involved, and lastly words and Chinese expressions that are on the windows of the exhibit. There is also a video of the making of this image playing in the exhibit room.
There are probably a hundred different phrases, I chose to include a couple of my favorites. Most of the Chinese phrases have English translations above them, but some do not. I am not sure why he did for some and not others, but I recommend going with a Chinese friend who can translate some of the phrases that are not in English.

REVIEW: The Painted Face Artistry, Design and Voice in Chinese Opera

This performance was by Li Yang, a member of the National Peking Opera Troupe. Peking Opera is also known as Beijing Opera and is a regional style of traditional Chinese opera. It is said that one good second of Peking Opera requires 10 years of training. This was true of Li Yang who left his home at seven years old to train in an opera school. Since then his whole life has been dedicated to practicing and performing Beijing Opera.

Before the performance began, we heard a history and background of Chinese opera, with an emphasis on Beijing Opera, which was given by Professor David Rolston. It’s a very interesting subject and I encourage you to do some research before watching a Chinese Opera. At least to learn about the main characters that will be performing and a summary of the plot. The face painting is important in Chinese opera because it can be very difficult to understand what is being said, even for native Chinese speakers. So the face paint tells a lot about the character. The color of the face paint is very important: red indicates loyalty, black indicates integrity, purple and pink indicate honesty, white indicates conceit and trickery, yellow indicates an aggressive nature, etc.

Li Yang performed two different songs for us, each song from a different character and therefore with different face paint.  The first character was Cao Cao which is an evil character from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the second character was Li Kui, from Water Margin,  which is one of the four great classical Chinese novels. He performed each song twice, the first time without any face paint and the second time with the full face paint. Li Yang paints his face himself. Actors in the U.S. don’t do their own makeup, but in Chinese Opera they do because this allows actors to create their own distinguishing features to their face paint.

I actually enjoyed watching Li Yang perform the songs without any face paint more because I could see the expressions on his face more clearly. I thought his facial expressions were comical, especially when he would fully open his eyes and dart around his eyeballs. I really enjoyed watching his movements while he sang which reminded me of Tai-chi.

The songs he performed for us usually have an orchestra accompaniment. Li Yang would mimic the sounds of the orchestra with his voice while he performed. It was very interesting to hear, the best way to describe it is with “tutt tutt tut, putt putt put” sounds.

Afterwards, they had a raffle. I wanted to win the grand prize of getting my face painted by Li Yang, but instead, I got a bottle opener in the shape of a painted face. Which was still nice.

I attached three images below, the first two images are of Cao Cao, the second image is Li Kui.


REVIEW: Yangqin Sonorities and Styles

Shoutout to the Confucius Institute for hosting another awesome traditional Chinese music performance.

Through 11 beautiful classical Chinese songs I got to hear many beautiful Chinese instruments: the yangqin, zheng, erhu, ruan, pipa, and of course percussion (Look these instruments up they’re all super cool). I was able to hear the instruments play songs on their own, and altogether as an orchestra.

The focus of the night was the yangqin, which is an instrument unlike anything western culture. In western music, most of our classical string instruments just seem to be bigger versions of each other: violin, viola, cello, bass. Chinese music has so many varieties of string instruments and the yangqin is one of the most unique combining a string instrument with percussion. The yangqin’s control over tempo while having the sound of a beautiful string instrument is so special.

I enjoyed that the whole night focused around the yangqin because I was really able to pay attention to the special techniques of the yangqin and listen to how other instruments support the yangqin. The yangqin player Xie Jun is an award winning yangqin player, and I was able to see many masterful techniques I had never seen before. The yangqin is played with a drumstick striking the strings. For the first time ever I saw Xie Jun pluck strings with his fingers, brush the drumstick across the strings to silence them, and use the butt-end of the stick to strum the strings.

Xie Jun really was a master. He didn’t use sheet music for any of the songs and even closed his eyes most of the time that he was playing.  This means he didn’t just memorize the pieces but has practiced them so much he has enough muscle memory to not have to look at the instrument while playing.

This was my first time hearing a zheng live. The zheng is one of the coolest instruments I have ever seen. It is similar to a harp, but it a pressure based. The strings are hoisted by a bridge about halfway of the string and while one hand plucks the strings, on the other side of the bridge the other hand bends the string into the note desired.

My favorite song was the 10th song played Spring at the Heavenly Mountain, because of how the erhu complemented the yangqin. I felt a story being told that involved religion and flying insects. The erhu in Autumn Lyrics had a scratchier and whispery sound, which was also very beautiful. It reminded me of a wailing ghost.

The most disappointing aspect of the show was the audience.  There were around 30 people there, which considering we were in Mendelssohn theater meant we filled about 5% of the theater. It felt embarrassing to have such a small audience for a group of master musicians.  I’d like to say that this was because of the snow and cold weather, but I never students at cultural events void of free food or their friends performing. Half the cultural shows I attend I feel as if I am the lone student there, representing U of M. I know Michigan students like drinking, over studying, and wasting time on their cell phones and it’s disappointing that so much culture is going to die in this next century. I’m so fortunate that the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor still likes to host cultural events for the few of us that appreciate it. The few of us that were at this show enjoyed it so much we were able to get a double encore out of the orchestra.