REVIEW: Jazz Department 25th Anniversary: Jazz Ensembles and Alumni Concert

Jazz Ensemble and Alumni Concert

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation department at the University of Michigan. To celebrate, a number of musical activities have been taking place all month,including panel discussions, visiting artists, masterclass, theme semester collaborations, faculty recitals, and performance showcases. Last week, the Jazz Ensemble and Alumni Concert performed in the Rackham Auditorium. Jazz ensemble is a required class for concentrators, divided into two sections: Jazz Lab Ensemble and Jazz Ensemble.

The first half of the performance showcased the “Lab.” They performed seven pieces; some original, some classic, some arranged by faculty, and some written by department alumni. Two of the songs featured vocals. The last piece performed before the intermission was my favorite. It takes a lot of breath to shine amidst the carries of thirty brass instruments!

Following the break, the Jazz Ensemble collected onstage and performed six arrangements. Two were written by faculty Andrew Bishop and Ellen Rowe (director of the department, who also conducted), and two were written by alumni. It just so happens that the latter were my favorite pieces of the evening.”Leaving Paris,” by David Luther (a very fine name for a jazz composer, don’t you think?) was the kind of music you’d want to hear on a rainy day. It was slow but varied; I felt the emotion in the rhythm very richly. “May Morning Dew,” by Tyler Duncan, was an adventurous and non-traditional piece. The notes drew from an ancient Irish folk song and included the recoded voice of a man singing the archaic tune. Tyler Duncan played the F Flute, which apparently he used when he auditioned for the school though it had never been done before. An experimental artist, you may recognize Tyler’s name from local Ann Arbor band My Dear Disco, which he helped create and toured with in the years following graduation.

The performance was an exciting exposition of student work, both past and present. The energetic music certainly celebrated this momentous anniversary that this year marks. I loved attending, but after the show had to quickly race back to the library to study for finals. Good luck everyone!

REVIEW: Friars’ Annual Fall Study Break Concert


This past Thursday December 8th, I went to see the Friars’ Annual Fall Study Break Concert, and it was simply amazing!!  It was held in Rackham Auditorium, and there was a great turn out.  Outrage Dance Team was their opening act, who despite some minor technical difficulties, performed a modern upbeat dance number that got the crowd in a wide awake and vigilant mood.  After the performance, one of the dancers introduced the Friars onto the stage with the classic line, “And now due to unfortunate circumstances, I introduce to you the Friars…”  


I must say, I absolutely love how spontaneous and energetic the Friars are.  Each one of them is a natural in the spotlight and effortlessly entertaining, though some more than others.  It seemed as if their entire performance, other than their songs of course, was unrehearsed and a result of their quick wit and go with the flow attitude.  They also have a fantastic ability to draw inspiration from their audience as inspiration and take feedback from the audience and turn it into a joke.  I saw the first glimpse of their impeccable sense of humor when I opened up the concert program, and it was filled with baby pictures and expressions (the theme of the night was The Friars as Babies).   


Some highlights: The Friars turned the song Mrs. Robinson into a clever anthem praising Denard Robinson and singing in perfect harmony and unity.  One of their classic lines:  “Here’s to you Denard Robinson, Wolverines fans turn their eyes to you, Go Go Blue.”   One of my other favorites was when they sang God Bless the U of M, a beautiful and soft tribute to the university, while also taking several stabs at Ohio State and Notre Dame. (Some lyrics include, “And I’m proud to go to Michigan, where we hate the Ohio State, let them think they’re cool for now, til they realize our jobs pay” and then “And I’m proud to go to Michigan where we hate the white and green, and I won’t forget my ACT scores that gave that right to me” both of which had the crowd laughing hysterically.)  


However, my most memorable moment of the night had to be when Midnight Blue, the university’s Women’s Glee Club, joined the Friars on stage and sang Some Nights by Fun.  I love this song, for its upbeat and energetic nature, but it felt like the two choral ensembles brought the song to life.  The sweet sound filled the auditorium and invigorated the crowd, leaving us feeling impassioned and inspired and alive.

REVIEW: Minimalist Magic: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Power Center

Malcolm Tulip’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has taken the familiar play out of the woods and into the desert. In seeking to remove the play from its familiar fantasyland trappings while still retaining an air of mysticality and changeability, the director looked to the famous Burning Man festival instead, where people can create magical environs and fabulous new personae for themselves, and then disappear without a trace. The stage was filled not by shady trees and drooping vines but by a vast wooden semicircle, replete with ramps, climbing walls and trapdoors, and a very tall pole in the middle of the stage. This set, designed by Vincent Mountain, did not convey mystery but rather served to infuse the stage action with a sense of wild fun as actors clambered and leaped about—less forest, more jungle gym. Changes in lighting conveyed changes in scene and setting with almost subliminal deftness—kudos to lighting designer Rob Murphy. I personally have never been to Burning Man, so I cannot say how closely the proceedings on-stage resembled the actual event, but the emphasis in this production is really less on the setting and more on the individual characters.

The fairies in this show are very different from the usual cute, mischievous pixies we are accustomed to seeing in Midsummer. These fairies are, essentially, a very Burning-Man-esque combination of earthiness and weirdness. The servant fairies (Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, et al.), clad in simple black ensembles of jeans and sleeveless shirts, look for all the world like theatre techies; they make magic happen, but they’re very no-nonsense and workmanlike about it. The main fairies, Oberon, Titania, and Puck, are a somewhat stranger breed; the best way to describe their visual appearance would be if a trio of punk rockers decided to play dress-up with a combination of their parent’s clothes and Christmas-tree lights. Caitlin Chou as Oberon projected that character’s imperious majesty, using an Indiana-Jones-grade bullwhip as a symbol of power like Prospero and his staff, while Tyler Dean played Titania with an almost campy sense of regality and dignity. Oh, forgot to mention—the gender roles for many of the major characters have been switched around. This device, obvious yet imperceptible at the same time, is never confusing, highlighting the play’s themes of alterable identity. Indeed, the act of making some roles both male and female serves to emphasize the universality of these beloved characters.

The most startling characterization comes in the form of Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. Puck: played by Derek Tran, Oberon’s right-hand sprite becomes a borderline malicious character, taking a frightening kind of delight in messing with mortals and fairies alike, not much caring what effect his actions have. Such a conceptualization is not entirely new; the fairy fun in Midsummer has always seemed rather random and bizarre, powerful creatures with ethics highly alien to human rules doing as they please with little regard to who gets caught in the crossfire. It’s just that they’ve never seemed so dangerous before. The strange otherness of these beings is underlined by the creepy sound designs of Conor Barry and Simon Alexander-Adams.

The impulsiveness of the young lovers came through with wonderful clarity in this production. Hermia and Lysander’s flight into the woods to elope, Helena’s crazy lovesick pursuit of Demetrius, and all the other painful and hilarious difficulties these characters endure resonated with the immediacy of youth. Even the magical complications that ensue once both of the men are bewitched to fall in love with Helena seemed to be less the result of fairy potions and more simple teenage caprice. Hermia and Lysander, played by Kevin Collins and Jacqueline Toboni respectively, were perfect at portraying the characters as the rebellious teenagers they are, fleeing the oppressive rules of King Theseus and Hermia’s father Egeus (the king and the father were played as stodgy sleazeballs by Drew Ariana and Emily Hanley, respectively, while Ariel Sobel gave an understatedly funny performance as a dazedly apathetic trophy-wife Queen Hippolyta). Jon Manganello’s Demetrius seemed a much more well-to-do lad than Lysander, smartly dressed, charismatic, and determined in his pursuit of Hermia, while Quinn Scillian gave a hilarious performance of Helena as a severely neurotic girl next door. Much credit must also go to Christianne Myers’ costume designs for helping to outline these characterizations before the characters even speak a word.

Madeline Sharton, Allison Brown, William Filkowski, Elizabeth Raynes, Danielle Cohn and Joseph Dunn are endearingly goony as the lowlife actors, the Rude Mechanicals. The Mechanicals in this production came off less like vainly oblivious wannabe-thespians and more like simple working folk who don’t really know what they’re doing, but want to make a good job of it anyways. Brown in particular made the absolute most of the role of Bottom—arguably Shakespeare’s most virtuosic comic creation—combining slaphappy brashness in the character’s “human” scenes, Looney-Tune wackiness in the sequence where the character is transformed into an ass, and unashamed outrageousness in the final performance-within-a-performance, which must be seen to be believed.

Although the unconventional set and hodgepodge of costumes can seem confusing at first, it quickly becomes apparent that this is an interpretation highly faithful to the spirit of this strange and wonderful work. Very soon, the thrill of watching such brilliant scenes, so rich in poetic truth and comic delight, being performed by such intelligent and insightful actors, becomes palpable. This is quite simply one of the strongest ensemble performances I have ever seen on the stage of the Power Center. Without a doubt, a must-see.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the Power Center December 8 at 8 P.M. and December 9 at 2 P.M.

Review: Band of Horses… Horses… Horses

My friend and I arrive at The Michigan Theater with plenty of time to spare. After some shawarma and a couple of cigarettes we went to our seats in the balcony, which had a great view of the stage if you ignored the large piping which i can only assume is there for safety purposes.

The Opening act for Band of Horses was really quite awful. They never told the audience their name, other than “Jason and Lyonel,” their sound was melancholic but with an amateur sound I kept wondering if I was in middle school, in some friend of a friend’s garage listening to their “indi” sound. The lyrics were forcefully quirky, despite their use of pre-recorded keyboard beats, there was little to follow in the music which was mostly made up of power chords. Interesting choice for an opening act.

After another cigarette and some mindless chatter with strangers and some friends who showed up, Band of Horses started. I’ve always been impressed with their sound but was completely unprepared for the excellence that is their live performance.

Their lighting designer deserves a metal for not being too obnoxious but creating a colorful ambiance to accompany the narrative lyrics, epic guitar, organ and amazing drumming. They had some beautiful images projected on the back wall of the stage through out the show that created some really interesting shadows and really added to the whole effect of this band and their music.

Unfortunately people were comfortably seated with their popcorn and beer so there was little dancing initially. However, after the first couple song my friends and I stood in the back of the theater to thrash our little hearts out. There was a moment where the stage lights illuminated our position and we got a “wave out” from the band! a great moment.

The drums were much heavier live than they come across on the album, which i must say i prefer. Over-all i enjoyed their live performance more than their recorded music, which I already love. Out of all the concerts, big and small, I have seen over the years (first one, 2000 TRL tour with Destiny’s Child) this show is ranking number one!

If you ever have a chance to see a band you love perform live, go. Seeing how they hold up under the pressure of immediate success/ failure is always interesting and illuminating.

By the last couple of songs there were people flocking to the stage and those of us in the balcony were standing and jammin. Fantastic performance and show of enthusiasm and appreciation from the fans.

REVIEW: Sprites and Satire at the Mendelssohn: UMGASS’s Iolanthe

In the director’s note for Robyn Tierney’s UMGASS production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, she says “I could have manifested my own creative expression into the delivery of the show, but I believe Gilbert and Sullivan had enough creative expression of their own; mine would only complicate things…I would present Iolanthe in a more traditional environment, one that captures the original brilliance and wit of our two theatrical heroes.” It’s a long-running debate in the world of repertory-based music-theatre: should the director preserve “traditional” practices and try to produce the piece as it would have been on the night it premiered, or should they go in an uncommon direction to try and bring out an aspect of the work that has hitherto gone unnoticed by past interpreters? Directors who pursue either approach run the risk of losing sight of the paying public and alienating audiences. The traditionalist can present a performance that is pedantically attentive to the practices of a bygone age, and thus of interest only to historians. The nontraditionalist can craft an interpretation so radically different that the meaning of the piece is lost, and confuses both newcomers and audience members familiar with the piece. It takes a director with a strong sense of the heart of a particular theatrical work to bring any production to life, “traditional” or not.

Thankfully, Tierney understands Iolanthe very well. She brings out the edgy irony of the piece with aplomb, while not neglecting the slightly mystical unearthliness. This production of Iolanthe is the best kind of Gilbert and Sullivan production, one that has all of the charm and none of the quaintness, decidedly Victorian in atmosphere but with the slightest pinch of 21st-century irreverence.

A good supplement to Tierney’s traditionalist cause is the fact that Iolanthe is a Gilbert and Sullivan work that has aged reasonably well. The trademark Gilbertian social satire is simultaneously biting and absurd (although rather less subtle than in, say, The Mikado), with a plot concerning a painfully idiotic House of Peers having their political powers taken away by a crew of vengeful fairies. The jibes about the folly of having politicians vote based on which party they belong to, rather than what they personally believe, seem particularly pertinent in today’s political climate.

The cast, as per usual with UMGASS, gave thoroughly intelligent and charming portrayals of their characters. The two ensembles in particular brought everything that was needed. Each member of the House of Peers, plus the Lord Chancellor (Don Regan), brought a definite and different brand of buffoonery to each individual part, from Jon Roselle’s obsequious Lord Tolloller to Don Regan’s alternatingly intellectual and befuddled Lord Chancellor. The fairies were exceedingly animated and characterful as well, graceful and sardonic in equal measure. The contrast between the sassy sprites and the blustering bluebloods was terrific to watch. Amanda O’Toole brought a noble bearing and a truly glorious contralto voice to the role of the Fairy Queen. Joshua Glassman combined a gleefully goofy demeanor and a sterling tenor voice in his portrayal of Strephon. Alexandria Strother, as Phyllis, delivered her dialogue with a strikingly naturalistic bent and her lyrics with a pristine soprano tone. Tina Pandya’s choreography was exceedingly well-suited to the music and lyrics: very merry, somewhat silly and occasionally even witty, not something easy to pull off with dance. Not to be discounted are the lovely costumes by Marilyn Gouin and Tam Prentice, which clearly defined the personalities and stations of the various characters with economy and beauty. Also to be commended are the lovely sets designed by Cynthia Lempert and Laura Strowe, evoking the Arcadian environs of the fairies in the first act and creating a picturesque nighttime view of the London skyline in the second.

One minor quibble I had concerned the delivery of some of the lines. Gilbert’s deliberately arch and verbose style, while effective in its time at lampooning the artificial stage conceits that Gilbert so despised, needs a little something extra to come off properly today. The words, while extremely eloquent and clever, ought to be “sold” a little in order to come off properly; this is especially true in the long and intricate passages of dialogue delineating the paradoxes and puzzles of logic that were Gilbert’s forte. It’s a delicate balance, for if the lines or lyrics are too heavily exaggerated, then the wit is lost; however, if they are said too plainly, the import of the words is easy to miss. There should be just the slightest splash of Technicolor in the delivery, just a little something extra to make the words truly register. For the most part, the cast did very well at keeping this balance. Two cast members in particular achieved this clarity through very different methods: Glassman delivered his lines with a delightful silliness that somehow felt perfectly natural, stopping just short of too much; Regan spoke his lines with pinpoint diction and a terrific sense of timing, pausing ever so slightly in his monologues to give the jokes just enough time to set in before moving on. Still, there were a few occasions where some lines that ought to have won gleeful guffaws ended up getting a bit lost, receiving only a smattering of chuckles. But this was only the first night—now that the cast has played to a full audience, hopefully they will be able to easily find their oratorical bearings.

If you are looking to introduce yourself to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe might be one of the best ones to see first. It has all the hallmarks of the Gilbert and Sullivan style in full effect: intricate absurdity wedded with music of beautiful sprightliness (ably conducted by music director Matthew Balmer and performed by the orchestra, which has too many members to name here). If that sounds at all appealing to you, Iolanthe will more than likely be well worth your time.

Iolanthe is running December 7-8 at 8:00 P.M. and December 8-9 at 2:00 P.M. at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Tickets are available at



On Tuesday December 4th, I attended the UMMA’s Heroes and Icons Film Series. Every Tuesday night at 7 pm, the Student Programming Advisory Council hosts a film in the auditorium of the UMMA, featuring pioneering artists who have made strong statements through their life’s work. This week featured China’s most infamous and controversial artist Ai Weiwei.

If you don’t know anything about Chinese history or its contemporary art movement, thats ok. I will give you the briefest and most topical- and opinionated- overview: in China, the government imposes very strict and fearful censorship on the public expression of its people. This issue has been of particular debate in the past decade because of the rise of social networking and Internet communication. Ai Weiwei is an international artist who has made numerous controversial pieces since he began his work int he early 70’s. Most recently, he has created a photographic documentation daily life in China. His gallery space is unconventional however; his exhibition is displayed via  Twitter.

In 2008, a massive earthquake in the Sichuan province shattered the lives of thousands of citizens, many of whom were children attending a poorly constructed public school building. The government tried to hide the extent of the destruction by refusing to release numbers of casualties or names of victims. Infuriated and inspired, Ai Weiwei ventured to the Sichuan province and began documenting and Tweeting his findings. As you might imagine, the government was displeased with the dissemination of his opinions and came to his hotel room late at night. They kicked in the door and entered unwarranted. The rolling camera captured the sound of a police man hitting Ai Wei Wei’s head.

One year later, the artist finds himself in Munich trying to build an installation to honor the lost lives of the children in the Sichuan earthquake when he discovers that the lingering trauma from the beating will require surgery. The premise of the film, therefore, follows Ai Weiwei’s recovery process and continued defiance of government restriction through his artwork. This particular installation is a mosaic of 70,000 children’s backpacks hoisted onto the façade of Haus der Kunst, a German building connected to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. This statement, called “Remembering,” is one that is difficult to forget.

Film maker Alison Klayman tells a very detailed story of an irreverent and soulful man who has powerfully challenged the fundamentals of the Chinese society through his artwork. I was particularly excited to see this film for that reason AND because I spent the summer in Beijing interning at an architecture studio that is right across the street from Ai Weiwei’s! The second image above (the turquoise door) is the entrance to his studio Fake in ArtZone Caochangdi. That was the view I saw every single day for months whenever I exited or entered my studio. Unfortunately, however, I never got the chance to see  Ai Weiwei. That is partially because he was on house arrest the entire time I was there. During his trial, a group of policemen blocked the street and tried to stop him from attending. A very dramatic, 24-hour police stake-out took place on our block for over a week, involving trucks, cameras, and many men in uniform. There was a great deal of publicity on the conflict, and  our studio’s exterior was featured here in the New York Times! See the elderly onlooker peering out from behind the bricks in the back? I know her!