The Making of Collage
By Betsy Goolian
Ah, Collage, that annual concert, the third Saturday in January, that oasis of warmth and light and sound, and — perhaps most importantly — excitement, right there in the dreary depths of winter. This year’s Collage concert will be held Saturday, January 15 at Hill Auditorium.
For two 40-minute acts, uninterrupted by applause, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance trots out its best and brightest, in short performances, back to back, from a darkened stage where only the featured performers are illuminated. It is often the only time during the year when students from all disciplines at the School have a chance to see and hear what the others are doing.
It really is a thrilling ride, as anyone who has attended can attest, and there’s something for everyone: jazz, choral, symphony orchestra, symphony band, dance, theatre, piano, voice, musical theatre, percussion, small ensembles, large ensembles, soloists, you name it. And from the seats at Hill, the audience enjoys a seamless flow of perfectly polished, perfectly amplified, dramatically lit performances, a “vibrant, unpredictable organism that just keeps going,” as Paul Rardin, a six-year veteran of Collage—four as a student, two as faculty artistic coordinator—has called it.
But even magicians have to practice their sleight of hand. And even the Wizard of Oz has someone behind the curtain. It’s what goes on leading up the concert that makes the magic happen.
Collage was the brainchild of Gustav Meier, director of the University Symphony Orchestra, now emeritus. During a trip to Belgium in 1976, he witnessed a performance that stopped him dead in his tracks. A quartet presented short pieces, in rapid succession—the opening note of one overlapping the final note of the preceding—with nary a pause.
Later, back in Ann Arbor, Meier said, “We were torn from the 20th century to the 17th century to the 19th and then back to the 15th. We were all just stunned. It never occurred to me that such a programming technique could happen.”
He decided to find out. The first Collage Concert was mounted in 1977, Meier’s first year at Michigan. It was a modest affair by today’s standards, but still it was a huge success and quickly became a permanent part of the School’s annual repertoire. Today there are alumni from thirty-two classes who have the Collage experience stored in their memory banks.
Yet each year, freshmen arrive, experiencing the phenomenon that is Collage for the first time. By sophomore year, though, they know what it is. And most of them want passionately to be a part of it.
Each October, a call for submissions goes out to the entire student body at SMTD, graduate and undergraduate. “We encourage applicants to submit audition recordings of distinctive repertoire that show the performers at their highest level of musicianship and expressiveness,” the call sheet says. The conducting faculty, who head up Collage, appoint one of their number as artistic coordinator. The AC watches—sometimes with alarm—as CDs begin to pile up in his or her faculty mail slot as the submission deadline nears.
In November, the conducting faculty listens to each and every audition tape. By then, they have determined what the anchor pieces for the concert will be: what the University Symphony Band will perform in the first half, what the University Symphony Orchestra will play in the second, what the big choral number will be.
What’s the screening committee looking for? “Excellence. Confidence. Beauty,” says Rardin, choral conducting faculty member and artistic coordinator for Collages 2007 and 2008. “Are we hearing fabulous music played well? Because if it’s a B or B+ piece—unless there’s a real hook to it or it’s an absolutely terrific contrast from what came before—it will fall flat.”
Soon after this winnowing process, the announcement goes out: who’s in and who’s out. Somewhere between 65% and 70% will not make the cut, for a variety of reasons. “We strive for maximum contrast in any number of realms,” Rardin says: “Loud to soft; high to low; staccato and angry to legato and tender; fast to slow. The more jarring or interesting the juxtaposition the better, although there has to be a thread through the pieces.”
And just who is it behind the curtain making this all happen? “Collage IS David Aderente,” says Nancy Uffner, theatre & drama faculty member who has stage managed the concert since 1996. “He is the primary organizational instrument. There are some 400-plus performers involved in this concert, and David has thought about what every single person needs.”
Managing director of ensembles since 1979 and production manager of Collage ever since, Aderente has been refining the process over the years. Once the artistic coordinator gets the ball rolling in the early fall, he picks it up and runs with it. He puts together a finely tuned, moment-by-moment schedule, taking into consideration myriad details.
One of his most vital functions is to look over the proposed line-up for the concert, to red-flag any hot spots. What won’t work where, and why? Together, he and the artistic coordinator refine the line-up, making sure each of the chosen pieces works artistically and logistically.
“Later in the fall, all the stake holders meet as a group,” Rardin says: “the artistic coordinator, production manager, lighting, stage manager, front of house, box office, sound, development. This is where we find out things we might not have considered: no, you can’t have the Hill Lobby open unless you do X, Y, or Z; you can’t have the students coming in that way; there’s going to be a brass quintet in the mezzanine, we need to rope off some seats.”
Then, in that third week in January, Hill Auditorium is booked from Wednesday through the Saturday night show. Putting it all together goes something like this:
All heavy equipment is loaded into Hill, under Aderente’s watchful eye: the sound system, percussion instruments, harps, and pianos. Choral risers and stairs, already at Hill, are brought out and installed. “We put on the extensions and start plotting out the stage,” Aderente says, “and Roger sets up his sound system.”
That would be Roger Arnett, the School’s sound engineer. Once dubbed the “patron saint of sound” by dance professor Peter Sparling, Arnett has been on the staff since 1978 and is equally vital to the success of Collage.
“During set-up, David and I have to figure out the technology,” Arnett says, “what has to be in place at the beginning of the show or at intermission. Once the concert starts, it’s dark, and you can’t go around plugging things in.”
Not all of the acts require sound reinforcement, but some do, typically musical theatre, jazz, dance. “My overall goal is to make the amplified world match the acoustic world,” Arnett says. “If no one is aware of any sound work, then I’ve done my job.”
Wednesday is also when stage manager Uffner arrives on the scene. “I show up for spiking,” she says. “Once we get everyone to agree on the physical set up, we tape out the floor. Ensemble directors have some say in the set-up, but mostly it’s going to go the way David says it is, because it has to. He has already done a tremendous amount of homework.”
Mark Berg, lighting designer, comes on board. Lighting is a key element in any concert, but is absolutely central to Collage. Once Berg has things the way he wants them, he and Uffner program the boards with all of the cues for the concert.
The night of Collage, Uffner will be in the booth at the back of the balcony, calling cues for the lights. With her each year is a conducting graduate student and one in training, being prepped for next year’s Collage, closely following the score.
Also in the booth is the spot operator, Ellen Katz for the past several years. “I’m calling the follow spot, up and out,” Uffner says. “Ellen is reinforcing area light or picking out an individual from a group. Mark is backstage with the light board, watching from a video monitor. Roger’s in the house, mixing sound, serving as our audience eyes and ears.”
In the midst of all this, Aderente schedules “open times” when rehearsals can take place in and around technical set-up. Arnett sets audio levels and practices with each set of performers who need sound reinforcement, laying the groundwork for a smooth dress rehearsal on Friday.
In the morning, the big instruments—two pianos and sometimes a harpsichord—are tuned by Bob Grijalva, director of piano technology. The whole process will be repeated Saturday morning. Then comes tech rehearsal, the preamble to dress that night.
“All of the representatives, including the conductors and heads of ensembles, come in,” Uffner says. “We show them their light, their positioning, equipment positioning. Then we practice transitions.”
“We do the endings and beginnings of all the pieces to work out the logistics of getting everybody on and off the stage or from one part of the stage to another,” Aderente explains. “During the featured performance, there is almost always some set-up going on—in almost total darkness—and hopefully without a sound. It’s a challenge to keep the audience focused on the performers in the spotlight, unaware of the changes going on elsewhere on the stage. It’s the riveting nature of each performance”—the magician’s legerdemain—“that makes this possible.”
“The paramount thing about Collage,” says Uffner, “is the seamless flow between pieces. We are coordinating lighting, sound, musicians, crossover personnel, movement on and off the stage, all to start and stop at a precise second. And it’s really really hard to do. In fact—and you can quote me on this—it’s a small miracle.”
Friday night is dress rehearsal, a full run-through in real time. This is the opportunity to practice the trickier transitions and work out any rough spots. “That rehearsal runs from 7:00 to 10:00. Everyone is very respectful of the students’ time,” Uffner says. “They’re only there when they are needed. Coming from the theatre world, I think that’s pretty amazing.”
Most of the technical personnel show up at 5:00 for the 8:00 concert. “I come in and turn things back on,” Arnett says. “Once you turn equipment off, you have to go through a testing procedure to make sure speakers and microphones are still working.”
Doors open at 7:30 and the hall fills up quickly as waves of spectators find their seats. Arnett makes final sound adjustments to accommodate what is now a full house. Student performers arrive; those who aren’t performing in the first half take a seat in the audience. Once everyone is settled in and the hour has arrived, a disembodied voice reminds people to turn off their cell phones and to hold applause until the end of the half. The hall goes black. A spot finds the conductor who gives the downbeat.
The magic begins.
Paul Rardin, who played in the jazz band as a student, will never forget his first Collage. “The most memorable moment for me,” he says, “was the end of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s churning, dissonant, rising in pitch. The orchestra’s going from a controlled train to an out-of-control train and then pop—right at the point when the audience is on the edge of their seats—you hear a banjo going doing dicka doing dicka doing. When I heard these folks rip into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” I thought: I love this place. That we have a conservatory faculty who said yes, this piece not only belongs in this show but it belongs right after Stravinsky is genius. I will just never forget it as long as I live.”
Saturday night, while sated and happy customers are driving home or nipping into a downtown Ann Arbor restaurant for a late-night bite, everything that was done during the preceding days happens in reverse. Only faster. “Saturday night we strike,” says Arnett. “The crews can get us out of there pretty fast and we have students helping.” Then everyone goes home to rest.
Collage 2011 will be held on January 15 at Hill Auditorium. For tickets, call the League Ticket Office at 734-764-2538.
Betsy Goolian is a writer and editor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.