REVIEW: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

The Chamber Choir is the most distinguished choir at the University of Michigan, led by the incomparable Dr. Eugene Rogers from SMTD. They consist of mainly vocal performance majors but admit select students from other schools in the University. This concert is leading up to the Chamber Choir’s international tour to La Plata and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The choir began the concert with two pieces including Thomas Tallis’s motet, O Nata Lux (1575), and a unique reprise entitled O Nata Lux (after Tallis) from 2020 by composer Daniel Knaggs. This was an interesting representation of music from the past and present, reminding me of how we respect and modify tradition through art. Knaggs stated (in the program notes) that he wrote the reprised work as a response to the original motet. He used the 3-note motive from the original work, adding free and sporadic hums to reflect the text’s closing prayer. Both works were brilliantly conducted by Katherine Rohwer, a freshly named Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting.

For the following hour and a half of the concert, the chorus performed Felix Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio, Elijah. (An oratorio is a composition with a dramatic narrative or text usually constructed for orchestra, choir, and soloists.)

The lengthy Elijah follows the Prophet Elijah from 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Old Testament in the Bible, with all the text coming from the book itself. There were six soloists from the choir including Andrew Smith (Elijah), Juliet Schlefer (Widow/soprano), Tyrese Byrd (Obadiah/tenor), Amber Rogers (soprano), Katherine Rohwer (Queen Jezebel), and Ella Peters (Angel). The soloists were outstanding, performing with equally cultivated drama and vocal integrity. Smith performed the bulk of the piece (singing the titular role of Elijah), overpowering Hill Auditorium with his wonderfully silky baritone voice.

I am always extremely impressed with the versatility of the Chamber Choir singers. Dr. Rogers brings in a selection of styles to his choirs and has a clear vision for each new piece the chorus confronts. Last spring, the combined choirs at U-M performed a concert of spiritual-inspired compositions by the acclaimed composer Stacy V. Gibbs, and in the fall prior performed Wynton Marsalis’ All Rise with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The choirs take on many styles in a range of periods with cohesion and care along with high-level instruction and outreach of the events from Dr. Rogers.


Image thanks to the SMTD website.

REVIEW: Elizabeth Cree

Some criticize opera for its long-winded and shallow storytelling—but Mark Campbell and Kevin Puts are determined to obliterate those expectations with their thrilling adaptation of Elizabeth Cree, a new opera based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. At just 90 minutes, Campbell and Puts craft a vigilant and intriguing operatic narrative about female angst, murder, and socioeconomic expectations.

The scene is set in 1880s London, in a grimy Victorian town reminiscent of a Sweeney Todd-like “Fleet Street”. The story follows the titular character Ms. Elizabeth Cree (formerly known as Lambeth Marsh Lizzie), in her younger years and after meeting her husband, John Cree. It begins with Elizabeth standing trial for the murder of John, and then traces her cautious trail backward from daughter to performer to wife, culminating in the climax of the opera where she is discovered as a mass murderer.

The Department of Voice and Opera double-casts leading roles in their performances, so this review is regarding the Thursday/Saturday performance of Elizabeth Cree. This performance featured Aria Minasian (Elizabeth Cree), Robert Wesley Mason (John Cree), and Katelyn Brown (Aveline Mortimer, Elizabeth’s ex-colleague at the troupe).

Minasian’s portrayal was truly spectacular—her Elizabeth was deep and seductive, precociously balancing beauty and terror. Her luxurious contralto voice pulled the audience into Elizabeth’s madness and gripped until we were left begging for more. Mason’s complement to her was grounding, with a voice effortlessly demanding attention.

Campbell and Puts are true trailblazers for the next generation of American Opera with their work on The Manchurian CandidateSilent Night, and Puts & Greg Pierce’s wildly new successful opera The Hours. Puts created a whimsical score for chamber orchestra in Elizabeth Cree, bringing a hauntingly dark narrative into a world different from our own yet totally understood. Campbell’s libretto brings ultimate life to the characters with mystery, wonder, and grit. Elizabeth’s libretti was specifically complex and refreshing, with many female opera roles lacking depth in older works.

The Department of Voice will return in November with Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel — a story making up for its lack of murder with candy and witches.



Read more about Elizabeth Cree in the Dramaturgy Packet here.

Photos thanks to @umichvoice on Instagram.

REVIEW: Michigan’s Got Talent

Wolverine’s Prove “Michigan’s Got Talent”

On Tuesday February 20, I used my Passport to the Arts to attend Michigan’s Got Talent, a talent show for the University of Michigan student body. The event was hosted by MUSIC Matters, a student organization that organizes music events on campus. Performed for the Lydia Mendelson Theatre’s packed audience and a panel of three judges, the night was act after act of inspiring creative force.

The event was MCed by two members of student improv troupe ComCo and judged by former president of MUSIC Matters Anna Lair, as well as the University of Michigan’s Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, and Mark Clague, an SMTD musicology professor whose scholarly interests center on the role of music in community building.

Student Band “Mahogany”

The range and variety of talent in the Michigan student body was on full display, from the upbeat k-pop covers by Korean American band Seoul Juice to the rhythmic flair of the Michigan Ballroom Dance Team. Individual talents and student organizations alike shined their light on stage. The audience was moved by vocal performances by Jeheil Butt, who also performed with DJs Acapella, and singer-singwriter Jacqueline Dianis whose buttery smooth rendition of Tennessee Whiskey was powerful and sincere. Student jam band Toast gave a zippy and energetic performance, and nine man band Mahogany connected to the audience with upbeat grooves.

Apparently on a whim, the ComCo MCs asked if anyone in the audience had a talent they’d like to share, and a brave audience member climbed onto the stage to perform an impromptu tap dance. After that, several other audience members volunteered their talents at the piano during set changes. There was a magic in the air of rooting for someone to make the change from audience member to performer at a second’s notice.

Outrage Dance’s Final Pose

Outrage Dance gave an energetic and technically impressive performance that knocked the audience’s socks off, winning the Crowd Favorite Award. Trenton Michael (featured image) and his saxophone performed an upbeat, spunky, and honest original song that had the audience clapping along, winning him Most Original Performance.

My favorite act was probably Tola Kilian and Miguel Retto, who represented the Michigan Ballroom Dance Team with a performance of Pink Panther. The suave and sassy dance was truly a pleasure to watch, and reminded me of my days studying abroad and dancing the Tango in Argentina.

Tola Kilian and Miguel Retto of The Michigan Ballroom Dance Team

I left Michigan’s Got Talent moved by the talent of my peers, and glowing from the chance to catch and reflect the shine of my classmate’s creative expression. The opportunity to see students in the audience sit up from their velvet seats and show that they too had something to share, imparted a whispered awareness of the energetic creativity that hums in the people around you. Michigan’s Got Talent was a celebration of music, and of life. I think performers and audience members alike walked out of the theater feeling inspired, and a little more talented.

Music Matters hosts other events to promote the arts and music on campus. You can check out their instagram to learn about upcoming events like Spring Fest in April.

REVIEW: The Pigeon Keeper (Sitzprobe)

In the world of opera, new compositions are blossoming in opera houses throughout the country. SMTD’s own Voice & Opera Department is currently working alongside the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) to workshop a new chamber opera entitled The Pigeon Keeper. Commissioned by the SFO, the score was composed by David Hanlon with Stephanie Fleischmann’s touching libretto. This piece is still in progress here at SMTD and will have select open performances before its final showing with the SFO in March. This open sitzprobe rehearsal was presented at the McIntosh Theater (Moore Building) last Thursday to a small audience of students and faculty.

The opera showcases six main characters: Orisa, Thalasso (her father), The Schoolteacher, The Widow Grocer, Kosmo, and The Pigeon Keeper. Additionally, a women’s chorus (SSA), serving as crooning pigeons and schoolchildren, accompanies them. The Contemporary Directions Ensemble, under the direction of Jayce Ogren, collaborates with this cast comprised of auditioned singers and chorus members from The University.

The opera takes place on “an archetypal Mediterranean island”, following a young optimistic girl named Orsia and her father. They go on a fishing trip together on the anniversary of Orsia’s mother’s death and find a refugee boy in the water. The two take the boy in, but Orsia’s father proclaims he must stay somewhere else, or he will be sent to “the other side of the island”. With great worry, Orsia searches the island to find him somewhere to live, only to be confronted with shut doors and unwilling neighbors.

“Sitzprobe” comes from the German word for “seated rehearsal” an unstaged rehearsal where the orchestra and vocal parts will first come together. There are no costumes or set pieces, and the focus is entirely on the music In the moment. But the music truly lent itself to creating its own atmosphere. I rather preferred the lack of distraction from any technical aspects, leaving me to fixate on the captivating text. Fleischmann’s lyricism is quite prolific: she depicts such reality through an art form that is praised for being boisterous and grand. Likewise, Hanlon’s music is gracefully whimsical, while rooted in truth about the pressing immigration crisis in the United States and abroad.

The SFO website describes the piece as “[an exploration of] how we respond to those in need in a time of hardship and scarcity; and celebrates the kindness of strangers, the power of human connection, and the unexpected places we find family.”

The final performance will be conducted by Kelley Kuo, alongside soloists Laura Soto-Bayomi, soprano; Bernard Holland, tenor; and Aubrey Allicock, bass-baritone. It will be a free fully-staged performance on March 10th at 4 pm in the Stamps Auditorium at the Walgreen Drama Center. The opera will have its professional debut at the Santa Fe Opera later this year.


More on the Santa Fe Opera here.

REVIEW: Gershwin Centennial Celebration

The University of Michigan’s School of Music is the world’s leading institution for the study of the work of the Gershwin brothers. SMTD partnered with the Gershwin family in 2013, and since then the team behind the Initiative has continued to educate and deliver George and Ira Gershwin’s iconic music to Ann Arbor community and beyond. Gershwin’s most beloved piece, Rhapsody in Blue, is enjoying it’s centennial this year, and the Initiative hosted a concert at the iconic Michigan Theater last Sunday to honor it’s legacy.

The concert featured SMTD’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble (dir. Jayce Ogren), along with a quartet of singers and pianist Kevin Cole, a member of the Initiative and a Gershwin brothers superfan. There were several speakers interjecting throughout the performance with information on The Gershwins including Editor-in-Cheif Mark Clauge, PHD stuent AJ Banta, Dean of SMTD David Gier and other presenters who work with the Initiative.

Four singers from the SMTD Musical Theater program performed songs from musicals the Gershwin’s wrote: Aquila Sol (BFA 25′), Keyon Pickett (BFA 25′), Alex Humphreys (BFA 24′), and Sam O’Neill (BFA 25′). The four were outstanding individual singers who nailed the pieces stylistically and dramatically while ensembling beautifully during their group numbers. Many of the musicals they were singing were not from the mainstream, including Of Thee I Sing, Sweet Little Devil, George White’s Scandals of 1924, and Lady Be Good. 

The concert closed with the iconic 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, a classic piano and jazz band piece that is always a hit with audiences. Kevin Cole was a fabulous soloist with the Contemporary Directions Ensemble and played with humble virtuosity and conviction. It was a thrill to see the piece performed in person. The concert was a hit, deeply appreciated by the Ann Arbor community.


More about the Gershwin Initiative here.

REVIEW: Concert Black

On Saturday I had the chance to go see a live reading of the first act of Concert Black, a musical written by SMTD student Mattie Levy. It was held at the Newman Studio on north campus. The musical itself represented the lives of three music school students, an oboe player (Played by Levy herself), a violinist, and an opera singer. The play was split three ways between them, so the audience had the chance to see the differences and similarities between each characters life and experience in music school.

The musical talked about a lot of different things including the everyday stress of being a college student, the added stress of being in music school, and the discrimination faced by many African American music students. It was also told in short pieces rather than one continuous storyline, which really gave the audience a full glimpse into the life of each character. I really admire her ability to showcase each perspective, while also telling a continuous narrative.

As someone in music school myself, I really enjoyed and appreciated the chance to see Concert Black. Some of the experiences the characters talked about were ones that I could also relate to. Especially one scene where the character who plays violin is stuck in the practice room, debating whether or not to go out with friends instead, and the inevitable feeling of guilt sets in. It’s something I’ve done so many times but never seen represented before. It’s also just a very weird and isolating feeling that not many people understand. There were so many moments like this in Concert Black, things about being in music school that tend to go unacknowledged, and it was very satisfying to see it described like that on stage.

The scene changes, crew, and instrumentalists were also a part of the show. Members of the crew and orchestra wore white, rather than black, which made everyone stand out against the backdrop. I thought this was so cool, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It made me think about how everyone in a production like this is equally apart of it, not just the people on stage.

Overall I really enjoyed Concert Black and I can’t wait to see act two!