REVIEW: Handel’s Messiah

The moment that I entered Hill Auditorium for the Ann Arbor Symphony and UMS Choral Union’s performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, the festive and joyful mood was evident. A double-layered border of beautiful poinsettias graced the front of the stage, and a large festive wreath seemed to float in midair in front of the pipe organ. The orchestra and Choral Union filled the stage, and anyone there could sense that it was going to be a night of merry music-making. Soprano Yulia Van Doren, countertenor John Holiday, tenor Miles Mykkanen, and bass Alex Rosen joined the ensemble as soloists.

I have listened to recordings and even live radio broadcasts of Handel’s famous oratorio, but this was the first time that I have ever been present during a live performance of it, and it certainly did not disappoint. For one thing, the performers were of very high caliber – Scott Hanoian, the director of the UMS Choral Union is the former assistant organist and music director of the National Cathedral, and several of the soloists will be performing Messiah with the likes of the Saint Louis Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra.  Additionally, a nearly three-hour work written 300 years ago, it is impressively engaging. The audience was silent throughout, only to erupt in applause, cheers, and whistles at its conclusion.

One of the most moving moments of the performance was the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” Ushers distributed sheet music prior to the performance, and when the most well-known composition of Messiah was reached, Mr. Hanoian turned out from the stage and conducted the entirety of Hill Auditorium as the audience stood and joined the Choral Union in singing. I remember looking around during this and being overtaken by the sheer number of people singing around me and above me in the mezzanine and balcony. Centuries after it was composed, this music still has immense power to bring people together, and I honestly had chills during the chorus. It reminded me of why I love music so much, and of its most essential purposes.

I also greatly enjoyed hearing the organ of Hill Auditorium in action. Normally the pipes are merely a backdrop for other performers, but during Messiah they came to life. For most of the piece, I was aware that the organ was playing, but it was on stops that blended with the orchestra and the vocalists. However, at the very conclusion of the work, all of the stops were quite literally pulled out, and I almost jumped in my chair out of surprise! The organ’s rich sound filled the entire hall, and its grand, majestic timbre is not something that I will forget in the near future.

The Ann Arbor Symphony and the UMS Choral Union’s undertaking of Handel’s Messiah was an experience that has made me love and appreciate the work even more fully. Even if you are not typically into classical music, the melodies of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For unto Us a Child is Born” will stay in your head for days after. In my opinion, the chance to hear Hill Auditorium’s organ was worth it in itself!

REVIEW: Contemporary Directions Ensemble

The Contemporary Direction Ensemble’s Friday performance was emotionally powerful and also a challenge to conventional norms.

Their performance of “Die Schönste Zeit des Lebens,” or “The Most Beautiful Time of Life,” was breathtaking and haunting. The manuscript of this piece, a popular foxtrot of the 1940s, was recently discovered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum by University of Michigan Professor Dr. Patricia Hall. Arranged by prisoners at Auschwitz for one of the camp’s orchestras, it was likely performed for Sunday concerts for the S.S.

As the ensemble performed this piece, the first time it has been heard in 75 years, images of Auschwitz were projected on the wall behind. The contrasts between the lighthearted music being played and the dark realities of the Holocaust in these images were stark, and for me, this highlighted the power of music and the strength of the human spirit. How could something so beautiful exist in a place of so much death? The melody, which out of the context that this arrangement was created from is carefree, took on a much more emotionally raw and evocative quality that stayed with me for long after the piece was over.

The final piece of the evening, which was vastly different from how the concert began, was the U.S. premiere of George Lewis’s P. Multitudinis. This piece, which was of “situational” form, consisted of several instrumental groups, a traveling percussionist and traveling conductor, and the “multitude.” Rather than playing music written out exactly as it is to be played on the page, the musicians reacted to what was going on around them and responded with their instruments accordingly. It was a very intriguing piece, more rhythmic and innovative than melodic, and it was fascinating to try to follow how the members of the ensemble communicated with each other throughout the piece. Music such as P. Multitudinus challenges the audience to be fully present in the moment, because the performance unfolds uniquely in a way that cannot be predicted, and it is a living, breathing form of art. Typical conventions of music performance were broken – at one point a trombone player borrowed a reed and bocal (the metal tube to which the reed is attached) from a bassoon and put it on the trombone. At other times, kazoo-like instruments were used. The piece was truly a broadening of creative boundaries.

I greatly enjoyed the Contemporary Direction Ensemble’s performance because it made me pause and really think about music and its roles in a way that more traditional concerts do not. The concert exemplified music as an interactive art form and as a means of communication.

REVIEW: Big Band Holidays Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis

Big Band Holidays Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis was a great performance including a variety of festive classics, and it allowed me to escape, if only for an hour and twenty minutes, the stress of end-of-semester reality.

From the very first tune, which was “Jingle Bells,” the ensemble established a high standard. Various members soloed during that first piece, and audience members applauded and cheered after each, as is traditional for jazz.  One of the first soloists was Wynton Marsalis, and I have to say that his prowess on trumpet is clear in even just a few measures of improvisation. At one point during the concert, he played for an extended period in a range so high that I was sure he could break glass with his trumpet. And yet, for the majority of the concert, he was the modest MC of the night, announcing the program and various humorous anecdotes from the stage, playing trumpet in the back row, and applauding his colleagues.

Also impressive was the range of talent possessed by each and every member of the ensemble. Most of the woodwind players played as many as three instruments over the course of the evening. For example, one soloed on E flat clarinet, saxophone, and bass clarinet. The brass players had at least five different types of mutes each. Furthermore, the band’s performance of “What Child is This” began with a small group singing a capella alongside vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, and it was clear that those musicians could sing as well as excel on their instrument! Virtually all of the sets played were arranged by members of the ensemble, and each was innovative with its own personality. The closing song of Big Band Holidays was a jazzy version of “Silent Night,” which was intriguing and enjoyable for its contrast to how the song is traditionally interpreted, albeit it was amped a little too loudly for my own taste and eardrums. Another entertaining tune was “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” featuring baritone saxophone and bass clarinet playing the almost humorous melody. Some of my other favorites included “The Christmas Song” (which I learned from Wynton Marsalis’s introduction was ironically written in the middle of a July heatwave), “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel”, and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

My favorite song of the entire night, however, was Jazz at Lincoln Center’s incredible rendition of “Christmas Time is Here.” Joined by exceptional vocalist Veronica Swift, it was cool and quiet, in contrast to most of the other pieces performed, and it seemed to capture the mood of this time of year. Ms. Swift’s voice was smooth and warm and for the duration of the song, it drew me in and transported me to a place of holiday cheer and happy memories. The tune conjured simultaneous images of Snoopy skating among the snowflakes, cozy nights spent in the glow of a Christmas tree, and cheerful times with family and friends. I did not want the song to ever end!

The only letdown of the entire night was the fact that the audience did not call for an encore. I was surprised when the audience, which had been enthusiastic and engaged for the span of the concert, collectively got up, put their coats on, and left at the conclusion of the final piece. I, for one, certainly would have loved to have the privilege of hearing another song performed by Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis!

PREVIEW: Handel’s Messiah

Do you know the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’? It’s from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah! An oratorio is a large composition for orchestra and voices, and they often will tell a story (in this case, it is the Biblical story of Jesus). Messiah was composed in 1741, and it was a hit from the beginning – even the dress rehearsals of its premiere were ticketed. 300 years later, it has become one of the most performed choral works in Western music. If there was a top 40 for all time, Handel’s famous work would probably be on the list!

Join the Ann Arbor Symphony and the UMS Choral Union to experience this classic piece. Performances will take place at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, December 1 at 8 pm, and Sunday, December 2 at 2 pm. Visit the University Musical Society website to purchase tickets (If you are a student, you can get discounted tickets for $12 or $20). Don’t miss it!

PREVIEW: Contemporary Directions Ensemble

Are you interested in music, World War II-era history, or both? On Friday, November 29 at 8 pm, the University of Michigan Contemporary Directions Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Oriol Sans, will be performing a concert in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall in the Earl V. Moore Building.

The headlining piece of this concert is an arrangement of “Die Schönste Zeit des Lebens,” or “The Most Beautiful Time of Life,” a popular foxtrot of the 1940s. The manuscript of this arrangement was recently discovered by University of Michigan professor of music theory, Dr. Patricia Hall, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. It was arranged by prisoners at Auschwitz, and performed by the concentration camp’s orchestra. The Contemporary Directions Ensemble’s upcoming performance will be the first time that this arrangement has been heard since World War II.

If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating discovery before the performance, check out the article at https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/26/us/ap-us-recovered-music-auschwitz.html or watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csDc14TbF5Y.
Admission to this event is free and open to the public! Seating is limited, so arriving early is recommended. If you have never been to the E.V. Moore Building, it is located on Baits Drive on North Campus, right by the pond. Follow this link for a Google map. Just walk down the sidewalk across the street from Pierpont Commons, or down Baits Drive from Bursley to get to it. Hankinson Rehearsal Hall is located down the hall to your right if you enter the building through the main doors, or straight down at the end of the hallway if you enter through the door near the pond across from Pierpont.

REVIEW: Here Be Sirens

Before tonight, I had never been to an opera. The idea of attending one has always felt like a faraway dream; so alien to me is the concept of high society, or even adulthood, that I could never really picture myself amongst Opera-Goers. Not sure how to dress, I assumed a hyper-formal ensemble: a blazer and starched white blouse, dress slacks and sensible kitten heels I’d bought for a funeral last year.

I was shocked to find that the Kerrytown Concert House is an actual house. The place wasn’t the cathedral-like, built-in-the-1800s monster of a building with an elaborately painted ceiling that I was for some reason expecting. I’ve probably seen Phantom of the Opera too many times to realize opera can be performed on a stage of any size. The room was shining though, with a beautiful Steinway front and center and a smooth hardwood floors. Though I was definitely the youngest attendee, I felt at home in the audience, if a bit overdressed for the occasion. Again, I have not so much as dipped a toe into the opera world, so I had no idea what to expect.

This opera was not at all what I expected.

Much of the tone was humorous, even whimsically off-beat. While singing, melodic and haunting in its trio harmony, comprised much of the performance, there was far more dialouge than I had thought there would be. This is refreshing; many musicals I’ve been in and attended have been overpowered by song, which despite its vocal quality is typically incomprehensible. The speaking sections add the dimension sirens are denied in literature.

Kate Soper (writer of the opera as well as the actress playing Polyxo) relates her characters to links in an evoluntionary lineage. Polyxo needs escape, from the literal island but also the prison of the stereotypes of her kind; Peitho is younger and more naive, full of love for sailors that pass her way, but beginning to question how she’s viewed; Phiano is the cavewoman of the group, incapable of thinking beyond the island and what she’s been made out to be. Led by Polyxo, the opera investigates what it means to be so severely misunderstood that those around you begin to internalize the message they hear repeated over and over.

This idea does not end with Greek mythology. Its meaning extends out through the larger world: just as the sirens have been framed in a negative light, so do we draw caricatures based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation. And those whose faces are drawn with exaggerated features might begin to think like Polyxo, or maybe Peitho, and some, sadly, like Phiano.

If you are interested in upcoming performances at the Kerrytown Concert House, check out their website www.kerrytownconcerthouse.com.