REVIEW: Heart-Pumping Resonance

I don’t think I’ve ever left an auditorium feeling all at once inspired, giddy, heartbroken, and moved. Audra McDonald’s concert at Hill Auditorium Friday night was honestly the best musical performance I’ve seen in a long time. Her voice is one that hits you so hard you just sit there in awe, letting it swell in your heart and resonate throughout your entire body. Yeah, to say she’s got pipes barely skims the surface.

My friend Gina and I squeezed our way through the massive herds of people as we finally found our seats up in the mezzanine. I was thrilled to see how few empty seats remained in the gigantic auditorium. Dodging canes and tripping over wheelchairs, I was immediately surprised by the amount of elderly people occupying a majority of those full sections. Audra McDonald seems like a very current artist to me, with the musical theater performances of hers I first fell in love with; however, after this performance I understood the appeal for that particular audience: her repertoire for her concert drew largely upon older shows and jazzy 1930s and 40s songs! This was definitely one of the most surprising yet superb aspects of her performance. As if we weren’t already aware of how amazing McDonald is, she was able to wield even such classics as “I could have danced all night” with a nuanced, stylistic approach. A newer song she did include in her performance (and one that was probably my favorite moment of the concert) was when she sang “I’ll be here” from the musical inspired by the tragic events of 9/11, Ordinary Days. It was a tear-jerker to be sure.

One of the many great things about McDonald is she isn’t just a singer – she’s an entertainer. Between songs, she would give stories and background information that seemed all at once personal and professional. From what she orders at Chipotle to the tragic death of her father, she shared details of her life and experiences as if it were just her and I in the room. It felt so intimate – and to pull that off in a room that sits over 3,000 is really something to be marveled at.

After the performance, Gina and I walked back humming “Stars and the Moon” and gushing over all our favorite parts of the concert. We spent a good two hours once we got home looking up all the songs she sang and buying them on iTunes. Audra McDonald’s concert was above and beyond my expectations, and I hope everyone gets the chance to experience her uplifting and heart-warming vocal talents. To say it’s hard to convey passion in music is an understatement, but McDonald makes it look easy.

REVIEW: GAH-muh-lan

There’s nothing better than relieving all your anger and frustration on a gong. The resounding noise fills the room as you wail on that thing with all you’ve got. It’s incredibly satisfying. If you are like me and lack the proper funds for Javanese instruments, you probably don’t have one lying around. That’s why it’s good to stay informed about music events, especially Gamelan ones.

I walked in on the music co-op’s (MCEQ) event tonight with guest-speaker, Susan Walton, an RC professor who teaches about Indonesian music and dance. It was a little awkward at first, seeing as I’m not actually a member of MCEQ; however, with my camera and notepad, I felt somewhat dignified for being there. The tiny stage was littered with various red and gold painted instruments while Walton began with a brief introduction. She explained that Gamelan refers to an ensemble of Indonesian instruments. The Gamelan we were playing tonight was from central Java, an island off of Indonesia (hence, Javanese). She warned us that the instruments within the Gamelan are believed to be alive and, therefore, cannot be stepped over in fear of getting bitten (which is true because, as she related, she stepped over one before and got so badly bitten, she ended up in the ER).

Once the instruments were in organized disarray, she gestured for us to take our places on pillows, bare-footed, in allotted positions. She gave us simplistic melodies to mimic, numbering the notes accordingly. We repeated on our instruments, and actually managed to stay synchronized enough to create a decent sound. It reminded me of that music you hear that sounds, well, “asian,” but you can’t quite put your finger on where or why it sounds like that (or what that even means). It was incredibly awesome. Once we got good at our little tune, Walton came in on the drum, improvising with rhythmic syncopations. Just when I feared my arms were going to fall off from holding up the gong, she signaled the final refrain by changing up the rhythm on the drum. Dramatic pause, then I finished the song as instructed with a final gooooonnggg (she unfortunately failed to inform me in advance that it was supposed to be “much quieter.” My arm is still sore from how hard I hit that thing…).

It was truly a spectacular event hosted by music co-op and led by us, under the instruction of Susan Walton. I’m so glad I came and I’m excited to hear what other great events music co-op has in store. And, who knows, maybe I’ll even sign up for Walton’s one credit Javanese music class next semester!

PREVIEW: A Night in Treme

On Friday, November 11th at 8pm in Hill Auditorium, prepare to be blown away by the rhythm and jazz of “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans.” As part of the student package of Arts and Eats performances, for $15 you can experience the performance with pizza and a pre-show, guest speaker. The UMS website says, “The Treme (pronounced truh-MAY) neighborhood of New Orleans has been a source of African-American music and culture.” My only reference to fall upon for New Orleans music is from the Disney-fied version in The Princess and the Frog. As fantastic as that is, I am looking forward to hearing something a little more authentic and true to New Orleans culture and the rich, vibrant music that is created there. It should be a magical evening with Donald Harrison, Jr., Christian Scott, Glen David Andrews, and Dr. Michael White alongside the Rebirth Brass Band (UMS). Buy your tickets soon! Hope to see you there!

Here’s a link to the description at UMS if you are interested in reading more about the performance:

PREVIEW: Audra McDonald

From the moment I heard “Wheels of a Dream” from my beat-up, library copy of the soundtrack from the musical Ragtime, I was an Audra McDonald fan. I was so inspired by her vocals in that song in particular, although it’s only one of her many shining moments, I would actually listen to it on the way to my tennis tournaments in high school. When I heard this four-time Tony award winner was coming to Ann Arbor, I bought my tickets within the minute of replying to my friend’s text and placing my order online. The University Musical Society describes McDonald as “a restlessly creative spirit who is reluctant to be typecast strictly as a musical theater artist, despite her enormous success in that genre.” Some of her other work, as listed on Wikipedia, includes: Carousel (1994), A Raisin in the Sun (2008), and currently as Bess in Porgy and Bess on Broadway this season. It is sure to be a phenomenal performance and I hope you can all attend!

And just to share how epic that song I mentioned is, here’s a link to Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald singing “Wheels of a Dream,” enjoy!

PREVIEW: Gamelan Workshop

On November 1st at 8pm in the half-way inn (located in the basement of east quad), the Residential College music forum will be hosting a Gamelan workshop, taught by Susan Walton, an RC faculty member, to teach about the Gamelan tradition and demonstrate the instruments involved in Gamelan performances. Gamelan itself is an Indonesian ensemble of instruments, typically consisting of metallophones, xylophones, drums, gongs, and much more. Fiona Clowney, leader of the music forum, says, “[Walton] will bring instruments for us to play and teach us a short piece of music, as well as giving an intro to the music.” It sounds like an incredible opportunity to learn about an extraordinary and beautiful style of music. There is limited space available, so do RSVP for the event by emailing right away! Hope to see you there!

P.S. You can hear some U of M students playing gamelan at this youtube link to get a feeling of what the music is like:

REVIEW: Programmed Spontaneity

After trekking from class to class on Thursday
in rainy, cold weather, the warm sanctuary of Rackham Auditorium was a welcome
blessing.  I was attending the George
Lewis Interactive Trio, having blindly signed up on an e-mail from a peer
advisor.  It was quite the
spectacle.  I’ve seen my share of
abstract performances; however, I’d never seen an improvised jazz trio, let
alone with a computer-programmed instrument as a member of the ensemble.  The Trio featured George Lewis, musical
genius, playing his trombone alongside renowned pianist Geri Allen, and yet the
true marvel of the performance was the “virtual improvisator.”  This computer-programmed piano, referred to
as “the player,” responded to the musical stylings of Lewis and Allen by contributing
its own improvised melodies.  Lewis
designed the software himself, allowing for “the player” to connect to the
other instruments involved.  It was
entirely spontaneous, albeit programmed spontaneity on the computer’s end, and
absolutely astounding.  An audience
member commented in the panel discussion following that “the player” both
paused to let the other instruments take their turn in the ensemble and
instantaneously responded, with both clashing and harmonious chords.  This performance was all at once bizarre, thrilling,
and, at times, unsettling in the chaotic nature of avant-garde jazz.  I couldn’t help but think of robotic pianos taking
over the world when Lewis commented that he in fact had no idea what “the
player” was going to play until the moment it began.  After hearing just three or four notes from
Lewis’ trombone, the computer decides what performance it wishes to give.  A trippy and thought-provoking display of human
versus computer improvisation, I am so glad I made time to attend.