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George Gershwin’s first musical rediscovered after nearly a century

First available recordings of previously lost songs from ‘La, La, Lucille’ 

While poring over the Samuel French Collection at Amherst College last summer, University of Michigan researcher Jacob Kerzner discovered a box labeled “La la [sic] Lucille,” which immediately piqued his interest.

He opened the box anticipating nothing more than what was already thought to exist from the show. But “as I sifted through almost 800 pages of music, many crumbling at the edges, I gradually confirmed that these materials were indeed from the supposedly ‘lost’ show,” said Kerzner, associate editor of U-M’s George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.

Kerzner uncovered the complete musical orchestration of “La, La, Lucille,” with parts for flute, cello, trumpets, trombone, percussion, violins, clarinet, cello, bass and piano, making the musical possible to perform for the first time in nearly a century.

“La, La, Lucille,” based on the book by Fred Jackson, was George Gershwin’s first complete score, written when he was just 21 years old. The production opened on Broadway in May 1919 and toured the Northeast in 1920 and California in 1922. 

Outside of a May 1926 regional production—featuring a young Busby Berkeley the year before his Broadway debut choreographing “A Connecticut Yankee”—there is no record of “La, La, Lucille” being produced again.

Andrew Kohler, the Alfred and Jane Wolin Managing Editor of the Gershwin Critical Edition, synopsized the plot of “La, La, Lucille”: “The central couple, John and Lucille Smith, are offered a way out of dire financial straits when a lawyer informs them that John’s Aunt Roberta has died and that he may inherit $2 million from her (about $35 million today),” he said. 

“The catch is that he must promptly get divorced, due to the opprobrium of Lucille having worn satin pants on stage when she was in an act with her juggler father. Hijinks ensue as the couple concocts a sham infidelity to have sufficient grounds for the divorce, after ascertaining they may remarry.”

Mark Clague, editor-in-chief of the Gershwin Critical Edition and interim executive director of the U-M Arts Initiative, says “to research the art of the Gershwins is to study the words and music that shaped and soon defined American popular culture.” 

“It is an incredible thrill to not just deepen our knowledge of what is already well known, but to rediscover ‘lost’ work that offers fresh insight into the Gershwins’ creative spark,” he said.

Of the original score, eight piano/vocal selections were published and four orchestrations are preserved in the Library of Congress. The rest of the music, including the overture and orchestration, was thought to be lost prior to Kerzner’s rediscovery last year.

Students at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance performed some of these recovered songs, including “Somehow It Seldom Comes True” and “From Now On,” in a February concert honoring the centenary of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” These performances mark the first recordings with full orchestration of these previously lost songs.

Aquila Sol performing “Somehow It Seldom Comes True”

“One of the wonderful things about finding this orchestration is being able to see some of these songs that we had only heard in piano form come to life with the orchestra,” Kerzner said. 

“We get to hear these fun flute lines that we hadn’t noticed. We get to warm up some of these ballads with strings and we get to even see some of the changes in harmony that may not have been published in the piano-vocal, but that George Gershwin or Frank Saddler may have adjusted as they developed this show for Broadway.”

Keyon Pickett performing “From Now On”

“La, La, Lucille” also will get the critical edition treatment from the Gershwin Initiative, a unique partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance leading an international and ongoing reexamination of the Gershwins’ music. 

A critical edition combines the insights of archival and historical research with careful editorial review to produce a publication that represents the authors’ work in the most complete, clear and accurate form possible. There are critical editions of the plays of Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven and the poems of E.E. Cummings.

Through the Gershwin Initiative, U-M scholars are granted unrestricted access to the Gershwins’ handwritten musical scores, letters and compositional drafts in order to create some 50 volumes dedicated to their creative body of work.

The Gershwin Initiative released its first “Critical Edition of Rhapsody in Blue” in 2023. Upcoming Gershwin critical editions will include “An American in Paris,” Ira Gershwin’s 1928 European tour diary; Concerto in F, composed in 1925; the musical “Of Thee I Sing,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932; and eventually, “La, La, Lucille.”

“Part of the magic of the University of Michigan Gershwin Critical Edition is that we question received wisdom, test every assumption, and assume that anything ‘lost’ is merely misplaced until we can find it,” Clague said.

SZA, most Grammy-nominated artist of 2024, and the U-M alum behind the noms

When the 2024 Grammy nominations rolled in last month, SZA and her album “SOS” had a clear sweep with nine nominations, the most of any single artist.

The other name you will see next to Solána Rowe in nominations for Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Kill Bill” and Record of the Year? Rob Bisel. 

Bisel, who received his bachelor’s degree in sound engineering from the Department of Performing Arts Technology at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 2014, is a producer, songwriter, instrumentalist, engineer and mixer on the album.

“I’m super thrilled to be nominated this year. It’s a huge honor especially when considering the other nominees in the categories that I’m in,” Bisel said. “I’ve been a massive fan of SZA for several years, and it feels so special to see her receive the recognition that I’ve always felt she’s deserved, and it feels extra sweet to have helped assist her in the process of making her latest album.”

Bisel also secured nominations for Best Progressive R&B Album, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Melodic Rap Performance and Best R&B Song, plus a nomination for Best R&B Album for Babyface’s “Girls Night Out.”

His other work this year includes Don Toliver’s “Love Sick” and the track “Private Landing” featuring Future and Justin Bieber and songs for Reneé Rapp and Fousheé. Bisel has written, produced and engineered hits for other high-profile artists including Harry Styles, Travis Scott, Neil Young, Santana, Eminem, Kanye West and more. 

His previous Grammy nominations also include work on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” and Doja Cat’s “Planet Her,” as well as its hit single “Kiss Me More.”

“I have such incredible memories of my time at Michigan. There’s such a strong emphasis put on learning outside the classroom, which for me meant locking in heavily in the school’s incredible recording studios while working with top-tier talent from students in the music school,” Bisel said. “It really helped form my skills as a collaborator within a creative environment, and I’ll forever be grateful for my years in Ann Arbor.”

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Striking a ‘Crescendo’ in after school arts programming

For Madisyn Jordan, a 10th grade student in Detroit, playing violin and participating in classes at Crescendo Detroit has helped her to feel more comfortable trying new things, approaching new people and expressing herself. 

She says, through music, “I can play it whenever I am feeling happy, sad or stressed out, and that’s where I go to relax myself and everything.” 

She was introduced to Crescendo in 2019 by her cousin, Jordan Harris.

Harris is what the Crescendo team refer to as a “legacy student” and has spent every summer with Crescendo for the past 10 years. Crescendo’s founder, University of Michigan alum Damien Crutcher, has known Harris’ mother since she was a student in a sixth grade band class he taught in 1991. They have stayed in touch through the years and she enrolled her son in Crutcher’s new venture when it was founded in 2013.

Now, Harris says he enjoys learning about all the different ways the value of music can be applied to his life. 

“Music is important because it gives a sense of discipline that can be transferred everywhere, in all aspects of your life, not just music,” he said. “And it’s fun. It’s a good way to express yourself.”

With his eye on a career in engineering, Harris still believes Crescendo can help him prepare for the future he wants. He says the program is “rigorous, but you will come out of here a much more well-rounded person than you were before.”

Crescendo is an after-school program for children ages 5 to 18 that develops music and dance programming to promote artistic excellence and character building. With literacy and life skill courses, homework support and daily meals and snacks, the program uses a youth-centered approach that addresses the full life of the child that they believe can improve discipline, focus and self-esteem.

Crescendo was designed to address a lack in arts education in the city of Detroit. 

“We started Crescendo about 11 years ago when we noticed that there were no kids walking home with instrument cases. We thought, ‘Well, this is weird.’ When I was growing up, everyone had an instrument case walking from school,” Crutcher said. “We wanted to make sure that our kids had access to music, instruments and dance. It’s important that they have that space. Could you imagine going to school all day and only having math and science and history?”

In many cases, enrichment programs are located near schools or in city centers requiring families to transport their children. This can create a barrier to participation for families without transportation access. For this reason, Crescendo opened up within the Dexter-Davison neighborhood of its participants, in close proximity to where they live.

Now, Crescendo has worked with roughly 125 students in Detroit and also has partnerships with institutions like U-M and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A group of students perform with the DSO Youth Orchestra, Symphony Band, and Jazz Band. They also participate in composition classes and the DSO’s Senza program, which is sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. 

Crescendo also has a partnership with U-M in which participants visit the Ann Arbor campus regularly and work with music education students and attend performances through the University Musical Society.

“When we went to U-M for the very first time, being able to be there with college students and seeing the campus and being able to learn things from them was very, very cool,” Jordan said of one of her U-M visits. 

“I remember when we last went, we went to the dance studio and we learned some African dances and it was very entertaining. You got to learn about a culture that not a lot of people knew about and she showed us dance moves and how much pressure they put into their dances and you got to learn a lot about their history.”

With additional visits to places like the cider mill for cider and hayrides, concerts at the DSO and an annual trip to Cedar Point each summer, the students have no shortage of opportunities for fun or learning.

As far as Crescendo’s aim to improve focus, discipline and self-esteem, one mother had this to say about her fourth grade daughter’s experience: “She wasn’t really that into school. She did the work. She did fine, but just enough to get by. This has made her more disciplined in what she intends to do in the near future. Before Crescendo, she never mentioned going to college. Now she’s talking about going to college, learning to play the flute and taking it overseas maybe, and even teaching.”

This is Michigan

First recording of lost James P. Johnson blues opera ‘De Organizer,’ libretto by Langston Hughes

Paired with Johnson’s previously unreleased first opera, ‘The Dreamy Kid,’ premiere recording

After only one verified complete performance at Carnegie Hall in May 1941, “De Organizer,” the opera by James P. Johnson and Langston Hughes, vanished. 

The opera was thought to be totally lost until 1997 when the late James Dapogny, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, uncovered an unusual manuscript in the university’s Bentley Historical Library. 

Eva Jessye, chorus master—famously of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess”—and U-M lecturer, donated her collection to the university, beginning U-M’s African American Music Collection at SMTD, and establishing the Eva Jessye Collection at Bentley. Within her collection, Dapogny uncovered a preserved partial vocal score of “De Organizer.”

With the support of Barry Glover Sr., Johnson’s grandson and head of the James P. Johnson Foundation for Music and the Arts, Dapogny worked to restore the full opera, and in 2002 the U-M University Symphony Orchestra completed two unstaged concert performances conducted by U-M professor of music and director of university orchestras, Kenneth Kiesler; the first performance of the work in more than a half century.

In this opera, African American sharecroppers consider creating a union under the vision of “The Organizer,” while facing pressure and intimidation from “The Overseer” not to unionize; ultimately the sharecroppers overpower “The Overseer” and the union is established.

“When Jim Dapogny visited Barry Glover, looking for a score or manuscript containing the orchestral parts of De Organizer, he found a second one-act opera,” Kiesler said. “It’s called ‘The Dreamy Kid,’ based on a preexisting play by Eugene O’Neill. On the cover, Johnson scrawled ‘would make a great evening with De Organizer.'”

In “The Dreamy Kid,” a grandmother on her deathbed is visited by her grandson Dreamy, who, unbeknownst to her, is running from the law after killing a white man. Dreamy sings that the white man “was de one lookin’ for trouble” and that the white man boasted to others that he would “get” Dreamy. Dreamy then learns that the police know where he is, but his grandmother’s plea for him to stay with her through her final hours convinces him to remain by her side and await the approaching police rather than try to escape.

U-M’s University Opera Theatre, the USO and University Productions realized Johnson’s vision by producing a double bill of fully staged, costumed performances of both operas, which included the first-ever performances of “The Dreamy Kid,” in March 2006. Two months later, the cast of U-M students and USO, with Kiesler conducting, recorded the operas in Hill Auditorium on U-M’s campus.

The first full recording of these important works will be released Sept. 8 by Naxos Records. The recording, conducted by Kiesler, features principal singers Darnell Ishmel, Monique Spells, Kenneth Kellogg, Elizabeth Gray, Lori Celeste Hicks, Rabihah Davis Dunn, Olivia Duval, Emery Stephens, Lonel Woods and Branden C.S. Hood, and the USO.

“Had the singers—students at the time—brought only their vocal prowess to the table, it would have been impressive enough, but they also made real these characters and their stories,” Kiesler said.

The aim of this recording and the future publication of the printed music is to make these historic pieces available to the public while shining a light on the operatic compositions of Johnson. The project is part of the ongoing commitment of U-M SMTD to bring attention to underrepresented composers and their work. 

In 2020, carrying this commitment further, Kiesler and SMTD launched Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity to commission, premiere and record 10 works by underrepresented composers over 10 years, which will include an upcoming performance of Nkeiru Okoye’s “When the Caged Bird Sings” in February 2024.

Johnson, perhaps best known for composing “Charleston”—the accompanying dance of which defined an era—served as mentor to Fats Waller and was a known influence on pianists Count Basie, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. “De Organizer” may have been lost, but over the years it has not been forgotten.

Kiesler—the only conductor who has seen the score of “De Organizer” since 1941—also questions whether the original score was lost, or intentionally made to disappear. 

The content, particularly for its time in Jim Crow era America, was controversial, with its debut and only performance at a workers’ union convention making a powerful statement.

“‘De Organizer’ was premiered at Carnegie Hall during a convention of the Ladies Garment Workers’ Union,” Kiesler said. “We have inherited the understanding that the only printed music, the music used for the premiere, was lost and never found after the premiere.

“Perhaps it was simply boxed up with other conference paraphernalia and lost. But I wonder how this could have happened, and whether it was lost inadvertently or intentionally. It was not unheard of for some music by Black composers to be put aside or to go unpublished.” 

With the original music still lost, Kiesler has gone so far as to ponder whether the release of this recording might prompt someone to come forward with the music originally used at the premiere. Only time will tell.

Hip-hop as a new universal language

ANN ARBOR—Deidre D.S.SENSE Smith has found that, like music itself, hip-hop is becoming a universal language. 

“People from all walks of life have the need and desire to be understood. Even if you don’t comprehend or understand a particular language, we all understand a rhythm in a speech pattern or a song,” said the Detroit singer/songwriter, emcee and first-time University of Michigan faculty member. 

Through her music performance course “Ideas With a Beat: Hip-hop Songwriting,” the Kresge Fellow of Live Performance Art aims to create a safe space for anyone who wants to expand their pallet artistically or is “just curious” about the medium. 

Practicing creative writing through the genre of hip-hop and the discipline of rap in coursework is unseen and unheard of at this level of academia, especially in the Midwest, according to Smith. But it is vital as “an art form rooted in linguistics. There is power in words and in the way you can manipulate words to bring forth a certain emotion and understanding.”

The key principles of hip-hop are love, peace, unity and having fun. And from these principles a foundation of community is built, one in which you contribute what you can to the greater, most beautiful whole. 

“I hope to add on to those traditional components and have my participants actually develop their own ethics and morals that sprout from those principles,” she said. “I don’t think the foundations of hip-hop are made to create parameters or keep you constricted, but they are the roots of what can push you to branch out and develop a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.

“Whether you become a rose garden, an evergreen or an orange tree, whatever beautiful thing springs from it, the roots are those elements of hip-hop.”

Through the application of these elements to their everyday lives, students are encouraged to bring lessons learned in class home to their own communities, contributing to the global society. 

One component of Smith’s course that demonstrates this idea is her “inclusion cipher,” which emphasizes the importance of being present and offering your contributions, however big or small you feel them to be, to a continuum of energy. Whether you contribute an entire verse or just a handclap, you are changing this cipher in the same way we impact our global society through our individual actions. The inclusion cipher creates a shared, unified experience representing every person involved.

There will be writing prompts provided each week, and the course will culminate in a live performance of an original piece by each student. 

“We have to be confident enough to speak up—however shaky your voice might be, step to the mic and tell us who you are through song,” Smith said. 

Creating access to this underrepresented form of artistic expression academically is part of U-M’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in course offerings.

“Ideas With A Beat: Hip-hop Songwriting” (MUSPERF 200) is open to all majors.

The University Musical Society Announces 2022/23 Season

A season opener with Trevor Noah. The Berlin Philharmonic and a lineup of international ensembles. A week-long residency with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The return of the UMS curated series and the No Safety Net renegade festival. And so much more to discover…

SEASON LAUNCHES WITH TREVOR NOAH

Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

On Friday, September 16, Trevor Noah opens UMS’s 144th season with a bang, bringing his “Back to Abnormal” tour to Hill Auditorium.

Following his widely-viewed virtual talk with U-M students in 2020, the host of Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show comes to Ann Arbor for his first live UMS stand-up set.

WYNTON MARSALIS RETURNS FOR JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WEEK-LONG RESIDENCY

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis returns to Ann Arbor for a week-long residency that will include two public concerts, a School Day Performance for K-12 students, connections with students at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance — and a halftime appearance with the Michigan Marching Band!

On Friday, October 14, the ensemble will be joined by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra and Choirs, as well as the UMS Choral Union, for Marsalis’s epic blues suite, All Rise (Symphony No. 1).

And on Sunday, October 16, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis returns in its big band format for an afternoon of jazz.

THE RETURN OF OUR CHORAL UNION SERIES

Berliner Philharmoniker with Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko

Berliner Philharmoniker with Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko

UMS is thrilled to bring back our curated Choral Union Series! The 11 concert series will feature six orchestras, including two different programs with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

SIX-CONCERT CHAMBER ARTS SERIES BALANCES OLD AND NEW

Emerson String Quartet; Photo Credit: Jurgen Frank

Emerson String Quartet; Photo Credit: Jurgen Frank

The Chamber Arts series returns to Rackham Auditorium with a mix of UMS favorites and exciting new projects.

DANCE SERIES FEATURES PERFORMANCES IN ANN ARBOR AND DETROIT

École des Sables of Senegal; Photo Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

École des Sables of Senegal; Photo Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

UMS’s dance series will take place in three beloved venues across Southeast Michigan: the Power Center, the Detroit Opera House, and Hill Auditorium.

JAZZ SERIES INCLUDES FIVE WIDE-RANGING PERFORMANCES

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant

In five wide-ranging performances, this season’s Jazz Series features performers at the forefront of the genre.

NO SAFETY NET 3.0 CREATES SPACE FOR COMMUNITY DIALOGUE ON SOCIALLY-ENGAGED ART

Are we not drawn onward to new erA, Ontroerend Goed; Photo Credit: Mirjam Devriendt

Are we not drawn onward to new erA, Ontroerend Goed; Photo Credit: Mirjam Devriendt

The festival launches with the Belgian theater company Ontroerend Goed with a uniquely palindromic work about the environment — a piece that uses creative stagecraft to give hope that we can undo some of the damage that has already been done.

Details on the remaining productions and artists, along with a robust set of contextual activities, will be announced in Fall 2022.

PLUS MUCH MORE!

Including the great Mexican ranchera singer Aida Cuevas (Friday, November 4); the annual performances of Handel’s Messiah (Saturday-Sunday, December 3-4); and a double bill of Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart and Punch Brothers (Friday, December 16).

One Night, Two World Premieres at U-M

In one night at Hill Auditorium, the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) will host the world premieres of two notable new U-M commissions, both written by Black American composers. Tethered Voices, composed by SMTD alum James Lee III (BM ’99, piano; MM ’01, piano and composition; DMA ’05, composition), will be performed by the University Symphony Orchestra (USO) and a narrator. Damien Geter’s The Justice Symphony will be performed by the USO as well as the University Choir, Chamber Choir, Orpheus Singers, and soloist Goitsemang Lehobye, an SMTD doctoral candidate in voice. The evening will conclude with the USO performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The concert takes place at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, April 6, at 8 pm, with free admission (no tickets required) and will also be available to view via livestream.

Tethered Voices

James Lee III

James Lee III

Lee’s Tethered Voices is the first work commissioned as part of the Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity (MORE) project, created with the intention of diversifying the orchestral repertoire. Established in 2020 by Grammy-nominated conductor Kenneth Kiesler, director of university orchestras and professor of conducting, MORE will commission one new orchestral work each year for ten years. These works will be premiered and recorded at U-M, serving to expand the classical orchestral repertoire and bring important contemporary artistic voices to the fore. Kiesler’s hope is that MORE will help catalyze changes throughout the world of music education and performance. “I see our role as educating our students to be citizens, beyond being musicians and through being musicians,” Kiesler said. “I would like them to realize that they can be ambassadors or disciples for the arts beyond a very narrow repertoire, honoring tradition while also advancing that tradition by amplifying new voices.”

The composition Tethered Voices began with a new poem written by conductor and poet Kalena Bovell. “I wanted to commission works that would speak to the times we’re living in,” Kiesler noted. “Kalena Bovell sent me her poem, called ‘Tethered Voices,’ which she wrote in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy. It’s powerful. It spoke to me, and it immediately sparked the idea that a setting of ‘Tethered Voices’ for narrator or speaker with orchestra would be extraordinary.” When Kiesler asked Bovell if her poem could be incorporated into a new composition, she readily agreed. “I never thought the poem I wrote after the death of George Floyd would reach anyone beyond the circle of friends and family it was shared with,” she shared. “It is such an honor to be a part of the MORE project because of its importance and the impact that it will undoubtedly have on music education and conversations surrounding difficult topics.”

Kenneth Kiesler

Kenneth Kiesler

Kiesler immediately thought of Lee as the composer for this new work. “I had been impressed by other music he had sent me, so I called and asked him to write the piece,” he stated. Lee was similarly struck by Bovell’s poem, describing it as “compelling, quite stunning.” He recognized that there was a burgeoning interest in addressing “this kind of subject matter through art,” and he wanted his work to contribute to and further heighten that interest.

Lee hopes that his composition, combined with Bovell’s words, will inspire listeners to look deep within themselves and ask searching questions. And, he stated, if they recognize that they share some of the discriminatory attitudes decried in the poem, he hopes they will ask themselves “how might they change their mindset to really respect and love someone just because they are a human being, a child of Adam.” Bovell expressed her aim in writing her poem: “My hope in writing ‘Tethered Voices’ was to give people a first-hand perspective of what it meant to walk in Black Skin and to hopefully start conversations to change the narrative around microaggressions people of color deal with regularly.”

Lee’s compositions address a variety of topics, often inspired by biblical literature or history. He has recently been exploring connections between the history of African Americans and Native Americans. His goal as a composer is to create works that go far beyond entertainment. “I really like writing music that I feel can reach down to the inner soul of the individual who’s listening,” he shared, “so they can really be touched by it.” He described receiving an email recently after a work of his was performed by the St. Louis Symphony. The email was sent by an audience member who had been attending orchestra concerts for 38 years but had never before been moved to contact a composer. “They told me they were really moved by the music,” he recalled. “I really want my music to speak and say something to the listener.”

Lee’s works have been performed by major symphony orchestras throughout the United States. He is especially looking forward to having Tethered Voices premiere at U-M. “I always have great feelings for Ann Arbor, for the University of Michigan,” he stated. “I had great experiences there. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now, if it were not for my training there in the composition program. I’m very grateful to be able to come back.”

The Justice Symphony

Eugene Rogers

Eugene Rogers

In 2019, while thinking about future choral orchestral works to be performed at Michigan, Eugene Rogers knew one thing for certain: he wanted to continue his work of championing the expression of BIPOC experiences in choral works. He admired the work of Damien Geter, a rising star among classical composers whose work, Rogers stated, “uses the music of African Americans – whether they be civil rights songs, gospel, jazz, or spirituals – and then puts them in a classical context.” So Rogers, director of choral activities and associate professor of choral conducting (as well as a U-M alum), reached out to Geter to discuss working together.

Geter told Rogers he’d been thinking about writing a symphonic and choral work incorporating anthems from the civil rights movement, a work he planned to name The Justice Symphony. Rogers loved the idea. The work ultimately came to fruition as a joint commission from the SMTD Brehm Choral Commissioning Fund and the Washington Chorus, of which Rogers is the artistic director. The Brehm fund, established in 2017 by William (BS ’50, MS ’52) and Delores Brehm, supports the commissioning of new choral works from established composers to be premiered by SMTD choirs.

Damien Geter

Damien Geter

A three-movement work, The Justice Symphony features several traditional songs and hymns that gave voice to the hopes and struggles of Black Americans during the civil rights movement, amplifying their message and inspiring millions. Geter’s work features familiar songs made new by his distinctive approach. “They’re written in ways that you haven’t heard before,” he noted. “The melody is pretty much the same, but everything that’s happening around the melody is different.” Rogers spoke of the significance of The Justice Symphony in terms of the training of students performing the work. “It is very important for our students to be able to sing and perform in many different styles,” he noted. “A work like this in the academy gives students more exposure to disparate styles, which are now becoming a part of the repertoire that they will be expected to play and perform in some settings in the professional world.” In addition, Rogers views the commission and performance of The Justice Symphony as an important expression of the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The themes of this work deal not just with African American freedom and equality, but the freedom of humanity,” he noted. “It is about any person who is experiencing injustice.”

The first movement focuses on “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” which existed as a spiritual (with the refrain “keep your hand on the plow, hold on”) long before the civil rights era; the spiritual’s lyrics were modified by a woman named Alice Wine, and during the 1960s the song became an unofficial anthem, sung at protests throughout the South.
The second movement features the hymn “Precious Lord,” which has special meaning for Geter. “I picked that piece for two reasons; one was personal, because it was my mom’s favorite hymn. And it was also the favorite hymn of Martin Luther King Jr., which Mahalia Jackson sang at his funeral.” That song, written by Thomas A. Dorsey and a standard in the Black church community, bears significant historical importance, Rogers noted: “That is considered the first gospel piece ever written in America.”

The third movement contains a number of songs important to the civil rights movement. The movement begins with “We Shall Overcome,” though Geter made a notable change to the lyrics. “This whole idea of we shall overcome someday doesn’t sound hopeful to me,” he shared. “So I’ve changed someday to now. We shall overcome now.” It concludes with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black national anthem. “There’s a lot of history included in all of those songs in terms of their place in our country,” commented Rogers. “We think about the Selma march, we think about the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Many of these songs were sung during that era, when African Americans were really trying to find their equal place in this country. It’s American history.”

Geter’s hope is that The Justice Symphony will leave audiences inspired not just by the historical relevance of the civil rights–era songs, but by the significance they still have in contemporary society. He pointed out that the songs he incorporated into the symphony “have been around since folks were enslaved, and they were used and retooled during the civil rights movement to fit the message, to forward that cause.” He went on to say, “this music is the backbone of this nation. If you talk to anybody who lived through the civil rights movement, they will talk about how music was one of the most important aspects of the movement. And it still is.”
Geter has written music in a variety of styles, and his compositions range from intimate chamber music and vocal works to full-scale orchestral works and operas. Much of his work is focused on social justice, and all of it is intended to further his personal mission: “bringing Black music into the concert hall, in whatever capacity and whatever genre.” He commented that “classical music is not just white guys from Europe writing symphonies. So often, I don’t see myself represented in that way in an art that I love so much and have loved my entire life. And so, this is my opportunity to give back.”

Geter’s path to becoming a composer took several twists and turns. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion University, studying trumpet and music education. His master’s degree, from Indiana State University, is in conducting. He is a professional vocalist, performing with the Metropolitan Opera and major orchestras. And all along, he has composed music. “My background is kind of weird,” he stated. “It’s not one straight trajectory. It’s kind of all over the place, but I think that really has fueled the artist that I am today.”

Originally planned for 2021, the premiere was delayed by the COVID pandemic and ultimately rescheduled for April 2022. Geter is especially pleased for his work to premiere at U-M, given that many of his teachers – including Dennis Zeisler and Frank Ward – and colleagues are Michigan alumni. He also cited his admiration for two internationally acclaimed Black opera singers who have taught at U-M: George Shirley, the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice, and the late Shirley Verrett, who was the James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor of Voice. “I’m so excited to hear the piece live for the first time,” shared Geter. “I can’t wait.”

The arts add fresh perspective to social impact design discussion at “Size Up” event

ANN ARBOR—Equal parts scholarly gathering and collaborative happening, “Size Up: Changing Paradigms in Social Impact Design” aims to spark hybrid, flexible and engaging conversations through a series of workshops led by Detroit-based artists and activists. The event, 3-9 p.m. Thursday, March 31, at the University of Michigan Art & Architecture Building, stands as a prototype for what the blended future of academic happenings could look like. The symposium makes it possible to engage locally while still tapping into global expertise, and creates multiple layers of equity and access by ensuring that scholarship is not siloed from the communities they seek to impact, organizers say.

Faculty from the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning will be moderating panel discussions to invite reflection and input from design and public sector experts. The event is free and open to the public.

Germane to the mission of “Size Up” is its participatory framework which encourages attendees to question expertise; it asks students and faculty to learn from each other, equalizing the production and source of knowledge. Short workshops are held after each speaker’s presentation providing a platform to “hash out the ideas live” and collectively digest their hypothetical impact.

“It’s a way for us to first equalize the playing field between the international experts and our Detroit-based experts to make sense of what is considered in a scholarly manner and understand how it really impacts communities and how we work and live,” said Anya Sirota, associate dean for academic initiatives at Taubman. “We treat everyone equally in their expertise. I think that’s very important for us from a DEI framework.  Scholarship is not disengaged from local actors. We’re in it together.”

Social impact design bridges many disciplines, attracting those seeking to address humanitarian issues and to make a positive impact in the world. For this reason, the Taubman College has also made great efforts to actively infuse the arts and the value of building and supporting culture into the discussion. Bringing in musicians from Detroit, including My Detroit Players, DJ Los, and Emily Rogers, the 2022 Wallenberg Symposium emphasizes diversity, equity and inclusion, while helping to debunk the idea that entertainment arts and scholarship are separate, Sirota said. 

In the process, the event showcases work that equitably addresses social problems, especially in places where design is traditionally unavailable or inaccessible. 

“All of this is not about how DEI is aspirational. It’s actually living the concepts by introducing radical horizontality in terms of who produces new knowledge,” she said. 

“For me, this is a DEI framework lived and not projected. I think we’re going to work very hard to start living by this ethos and these concepts. Rather than planning for the future, I think we’re going to start now.”

Sirota and Jose Sanchez, a Detroit-based architect, game designer and theorist, are moderators for the event, which is also sponsored by U-M Public Design Corps.

Speakers: Global leaders in social impact design

The Collectif Etc. (Maxence Bohn) is a nonprofit organization based in France that collaborates with local communities to address the use of public spaces.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. 

Niklas Maak is the arts editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and an architecture theoretician working in Berlin.

Mitsuhiro Sakakibara is a Kyoto-based architectural and urban researcher. 

Tatjana Schneider is a professor for history and theory of architecture and the city at the Technical University Braunschweig, Germany. 

 

Facilitators: Detroit-based artists and activists

Sherrine Azab is the co-director of the Detroit-based theater ensemble A Host of People

Jake Hooker is a writer, director, projection designer, scholar and educator. He teaches in the U-M Department of Theatre.

Billy Mark is an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Detroit.

 Gina Reichert is an artist, architect and community developer who founded Power House Productions.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist and multimedia artist. 

 

Music: Live performance 

My Detroit Players features bassist Emily Rogers, a producer who works as a songwriter, musician, dancer, choreographer, event curator, musical director, host and DJ. Other members include: JRGotTheHiTS (drums), Shaphan Maestro Williams (keys),  Duminie Deporres (guitar), DJ Los (turntables), Zac Land (trombone) and Nick Speed (vocals and music production center).

The symposium continues the tradition of honoring the humanitarian work of Raoul Wallenberg, a Taubman College alumnus distinguished for his courageous actions in German-occupied Hungary during World War II. 

More information: Jacob Comerci

A Rare Opportunity: SMTD Musical Theatre Students Undertake Extensive Preparation for Roles in UMS’ Production of Fiddler on the Roof

Musical theatre students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) have countless opportunities to learn from world-class scholars and practitioners: in courses taught by faculty, in masterclasses conducted by industry professionals, in visits from alumni working on Broadway. An upcoming production offers a group of musical theatre students an entirely different educational opportunity: the chance to perform alongside Broadway actors, in a production led by a professional creative team—including Broadway director Sarna Lapine and music director Andy Einhorn—and accompanied by major orchestras. The University Musical Society (UMS) is producing lightly staged concert performances of Fiddler on the Roof in Hill Auditorium, February 19-20, starring Broadway performers Chuck Cooper (Tevye) and Loretta Ables Sayre (Golde), along with 14 musical theatre students. An additional six students serve as understudies for the production. The Ann Arbor performances will feature the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and will be the first live performances of John Williams’ orchestral arrangement of the movie score. The Williams score had not been preserved in written form in the 50 years since the film’s premiere and had to be reconstructed. Two weeks after the Ann Arbor performances, the production will head to Philadelphia, where it will be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I think that this show speaks to everybody. And the idea of how we’re born into traditions and how we push forward as a society, so when we see the struggles of this one particular family it’s really an extension of everyone,” Music Director and Conductor Andy Einhorn said. 

  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
The beloved stage musical and film – based on the Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Aleichem – explores the tension between tradition and evolving norms in Anatevka, a poor Jewish shtetl (village), in early 20th-century Russia. Tevye the dairyman extols the traditions that govern Anatevka, dreams of a more comfortable existence, and seeks to arrange favorable marriages for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, long to depart from tradition, and the shtetl faces imminent threats to its existence from pogroms, the deadly anti-Semitic massacres that displaced scores of Jewish communities in Czarist Russia. Seeking to raise awareness of the relevance of Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary events, including a rise in anti-Semitism and global migration crises, UMS partnered with several University of Michigan departments – the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies, and the Center for European Studies – to present programs for the public in conjunction with the performance. Michael McElroy, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre and the Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Endowed Professor of Musical Theatre, says that examining Fiddler’s context was a vital component of the experience for the students in the production. “We’re looking at all these traditional musicals through a new lens. How do we explore our history—which is steeped with a lot of baggage—and find the things about traditional musical theatre that are worth celebrating,” he said. Keenly aware of students’ concerns about telling the stories of communities they aren’t a part of, McElroy wanted to take the steps necessary to help his students feel more comfortable in their roles. It’s a question, he noted, of “how we as artists step into other spaces that don't necessarily represent our own lived experience.” He acknowledged that all artists do that, but, he asked, “if we're saying yes, that's what we're going to do as a community, then what is our responsibility?” The answer, McElroy determined, was to learn and understand – about Jewish traditions, about Yiddish language and culture, and about the lives of Jews in Eastern European shtetls. Before the roles in Fiddler had even been cast, he gathered all of the musical theatre students to meet with Rabbi Lisa Stella, director of religious life and education at U-M Hillel, Rabbi Josh Whinston of Congregation Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. Students also met with Christi-Anne Castro, interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for SMTD. “I was really honored to be asked to talk to them,” Stella says, “and I think it showed sensitivity on the part of everyone involved.” McElroy began the process by asking whether the Jewish students in the department and the rabbis felt it was appropriate for, as McElroy states, “a diverse group of artists to tell a story that is steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, like Fiddler on the Roof.” The answer was a resounding yes.

The characters of ‘Fiddler’ come to life this weekend with the help of costume designer Beth Goldenberg.

Once the roles were cast, McElroy scheduled for the students a series of sessions with U-M professors and other educators, inviting them to meet with the students and address a wide range of topics. One of the guests was Mira Sussman, a Jewish educator and the resettlement resource development manager for Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Along with Stella, Sussman spoke with the students about Jewish identity and history, explaining that “Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, but it is also a way of life and a culture.” And while there are abundant examples of persecution throughout Jewish history, Sussman emphasized the joyfulness of her Jewish identity, noting “that trauma and discrimination is not the totality of our lived experience.” The session concluded with the teaching of the hora, the traditional circle dance that is a feature of many Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Levinson told the students that the era depicted in Fiddler was a time of significant transition in Eastern Europe; many people were embracing revolutionary ideologies, he noted, and “rejecting tradition and rejecting religion and rejecting hierarchies of all kinds.” At the same time, Levinson asked the students to think about the fact that Fiddler reflects not just the era depicted in the musical, but the era in which it was written. He encouraged them to consider the musical, written in the early 1960s, as “an expression of postwar American Jewish culture.” Levinson pointed out that the themes explored in Fiddler – “conflicts between tradition and modernity, conflicts about gender, about the role of individual decision, love, [and] yearning in relation to the needs of the community” – resonate with people of many cultures worldwide.

In support of the performance, you can find a collection of Polish posters of Fiddler on the Roof from the last four decades on display through March 18 at Weiser Hall (Gallery Space, 5th Floor).

In another session, Stella gathered with the students to discuss Shabbat, sharing relevant passages from the Torah. “I wanted to ground them a little bit in the context of what the Jewish Sabbath is,” she says, “and how significant it is in the framework of Jewish life.” Stella also gave the students a sense of how Eastern European Jews in the time of Fiddler would have celebrated Shabbat. And finally, she shared with them her own Shabbat traditions, setting up a table with a tablecloth, her grandmother’s candlesticks, and a kiddush cup, the special receptacle for the wine that accompanies the blessing for Shabbat. Mikhail Krutikov, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, met with the students via Zoom and painted a picture of life in the shtetl, sharing images, describing the marketplace, and explaining that Jews and Christians coexisted in these villages and surrounding areas. "Understanding the historical context adds depth and complexity to the performance and helps actors create more nuanced and multilayered characters,” Krutikov says. The process involved in preparing for this production of Fiddler was not without its challenges. But this work is essential, says McElroy. “How do we earn that right, to step into an experience that is not our own? By doing the work and bringing your empathy, bringing your humanity, and honoring [that story] through telling it in the fullest possible way,” he says.

New York native drums up performance, teaching career

Drums have always been a part of Ian Antonio’s life.

He’s been around them so long, he cannot pinpoint when he first started playing.

“It’s probably pre-conscious memory,” said Antonio, assistant professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “The instruments and sticks were just laying around the house. It’s just one of the things we did at home.”

Both his parents are retired public school music educators, and his father is a percussionist so Antonio would watch him give private lessons. Those early years of exposure led to a lifetime of playing, performing and teaching those same instruments that were lying around the house.

Antonio grew up in Albany, New York, and started playing in his elementary school band in third grade. He was blessed with a teacher who, despite being stern and “old school,” was a percussionist himself and helped nurture a love for the instruments.

His future was clear from a young age.

“Percussion has always been central in my life,” he said. “My best friends in high school were percussionists in the youth orchestra and percussion ensemble and band program. So it was something I never really thought twice about.

Ian Antonio.

“When people ask you what you want to do later in life, I never had anything else to say.”

Antonio said Albany is home to a strong community of percussionists, many of whom, like Antonio, studied with the legendary teacher Richard Albagli. One of those was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with whom Antonio studied while attending the Manhattan School of Music.

“It was kind of in the water, I think,” he said.

He thought for a time he would pursue an orchestral career. But while studying percussion ensemble and contemporary ensemble as an undergraduate, he found his calling.

While at the Manhattan School of Music, Antonio joined Wet Ink Ensemble, which formed when he first started at the school. His first concert with the ensemble was in 1999, and he still performs with the group a dozen or so times a year. The New York Times named it “Best Ensemble” of 2018.

“It’s evolved over the years,” Antonio said of Wet Ink, for which he serves as co-director. “It started as a sort of loose collective, but for the past dozen or so years, the group has operated as a tight-knit ensemble of composers and performers.

“We work in a sort of band-like fashion, making small tweaks, suggesting sounds and techniques, finally arriving at the premiere. Sometimes authorship is a bit fuzzy because everyone is contributing to the result.”

One of Antonio’s most memorable performances occurred in 2016 with Josh Modney, the Wet Ink violinist, when they played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

“It involved a hundred live sheep on stage,” he said. “They had to get trucked in every day from a farm in Pennsylvania. They wandered out from a foggy nook in the back of the stage.”

Antonio is also a member of Talujon, a group of percussionists all with New York roots or ties. It is less active than Wet Ink, which is not exactly a bad thing for a musician who has performed on four continents but is now a father of two young daughters.

“The days of three months on the road in a van are sadly and not sadly behind me,” he said. “I miss playing in a different town each night, but I don’t miss sleeping on floors for weeks on end.”

While he has been performing for over two decades, he’s only recently joined the ranks of teaching. He spent five years teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase before coming to U-M before the 2020-21 school year.

Teaching has provided its own rewards — much like the ones his parents reaped when he was younger.

“Percussion is such a giant family of instruments,” he said. “Anything you strike, shake or scrape, and pretty much anything else other people don’t want to do. That’s one thing I talk to my students about. I think of percussion as a comprehensive approach to music making rather than only acquiring specific skills for specific instruments. It’s approaching instruments, objects, and situations with a musical mindset.”

While his daughters have not yet taken up drumming like their father did as a child, his 2 ½-year-old is intrigued by one instrument in particular.

“She’s been saying she really wants to play a marching bass drum. We live in Ypsilanti and the Eastern Michigan marching band marched through our neighborhood this past fall,” he said. “She’s been all about the marching bass drum since then.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The first time I entered the balcony at Hill Auditorium to hear the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s large ensembles perform really stands out. The talent of the students and the incredible acoustics and awe-inspiring design of Hill combined to make an unforgettable moment.

What can’t you live without?

Coffee!

Name your favorite spot on campus.

There is a small, forested area outside my office window, between the new Dance Building and the south side of the Music Building. Several tall trees in the grove reflect the seasonal changes and are super responsive to the wind and sunlight. I could stare out that window for a long time.

What inspires you?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance every day. The students constantly amaze me with new ideas and fresh approaches and my faculty colleagues are simply the best.

What are you currently reading?

Every week is a race to not get behind on my New Yorker subscription. They can pile up fast!

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

It’s tough to name just one person, because I’ve had the great fortune of working with and learning from so many incredible people. One crucial influence on my musical journey was Claire Heldrich, who was director of Manhattan School of Music’s Percussion Ensemble and Contemporary Ensemble in my early undergraduate years. The attention to detail she brought to her work every day was jaw-dropping, and her dedication to the music of today inspired me to consider reorienting my musical path as well.