Off the grid: U-M students play with world class New York Philharmonic musicians
This past Saturday, ten brass musicians gathered in David Geffen Hall in New York City to practice a concert set that ranged from a soaring Michael Kamen double quintet to Sousa’s barnburner, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
It was a rehearsal much like any other, with the musicians discussing dynamics, vibratos, sixteenth notes, and cutoffs. But although they were seated inside the home of the New York Philharmonic, only half the musicians were orchestra members. The other five were students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Two days earlier, another group of U-M students had attended a percussion rehearsal across the street at The Juilliard School under the tutelage of the Philharmonic’s Daniel Druckman, associate principal percussion.
The U-M students were in New York as the first segment of a residency that picks up back in Ann Arbor this week, kicking off Thursday evening with two NY PHIL Off The Grid concerts. Students and Philharmonic players will perform side-by-side in chamber ensembles—one brass, one percussion—at two secret locations in Ann Arbor. Over a thousand people entered the lottery, requesting more than 2,100 tickets; only 300 spots are available. Lottery winners were notified on Wednesday morning about both location and program, adding another element of surprise to the event.
The last-minute, pop-up vibe has been a defining characteristic of NY PHIL Off The Grid concerts since the Philharmonic launched the series two years ago, offering chamber music, food, and drink in intimate settings such as bookstores, cafes, and smaller performance venues.
“It’s a simple, brilliant idea to bring the live concert experience to people where they eat, work, play, and live,” said Christopher Martin, principal trumpet for the Philharmonic, who will emcee one of the concerts in Ann Arbor. “Concerts like this are some of the most important we play.” And no others have been more “off the grid”: the Ann Arbor performances will be the first of the series performed outside New York City.
This week’s residency, which lasts through Sunday, deepens the relationship between UMS, SMTD and the Philharmonic, which did a previous residency in Ann Arbor two years ago. As the orchestra, aided by a grant from the Wallace Foundation, seeks to expand audiences, U-M is a natural partner. The University Musical Society, another Wallace Foundation grantee, is delighted to lend support to a collaboration that both brings world-class musicians to Ann Arbor and offers SMTD students an opportunity to study and perform with them.
“I have a lot of friends at other schools who are very jealous of me right now,” said tuba student Evan Zegiel, relaxing post-rehearsal on one of the mid-century couches in the Charles A. Dana Artists Lounge. Framed photos of past Philharmonic musicians and conductors line an entire wall.
During rehearsal, Zegiel sat next to Alan Baer, principal tuba for the Philharmonic, with whom he’d taken a master class during the previous residency in 2015. “I’ve played for him,” Zegiel said. “Now I’m playing with him.” Another point of connection is that both use Meinl-Weston instruments, a brand to which Baer is a design consultant.
Zegiel had never played double quintets or Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” another piece on the program, and welcomes the chance to explore new works. It also heartened him to see that professionals grapple with the same musical challenges that students do, such as how to make entrances and communicate with each other. “They’re just a lot better than us,” he said.
The other NY PHIL Off The Grid concert on Thursday—this one featuring percussion—will include John Cage’s “Third Construction.” The Philharmonic’s Druckman will join first-year student Colleen Bernstein, third-year student AJ Covey, and first-year doctoral candidate Colin McCall in performing the percussion repertoire staple, which was composed in 1941. They’ve all played “Third Construction” before, but as the piece calls for nearly twenty different instruments—as McCall observed, “John Cage was big on found objects”—there’s always something new to probe. Bernstein’s part includes a quijada, an actual donkey jaw with rattling teeth, and a conch shell blown for a deep “call” near the end of the composition. This is Bernstein’s first time playing the conch, and she’s curious to explore what she can do with it—for example, bending the pitch by sliding a hand in and out of the opening. Covey will play, among other things, a tin can filled with tacks and a “lion’s roar”—a bass drum with a cord running out from the center. A wet paper towel is dragged along the cord, causing the drum skin to vibrate and produce a sonorous growl.
“This is certainly the kind of opportunity you wouldn’t get at just any institution,” Bernstein said during a break in rehearsal. “We’re lucky to be at Michigan to get this chance.”
The benefit flows both ways. Philharmonic members, Martin said, well remember how valuable it was, as young musicians, to play alongside professionals, and they welcome the opportunity to give the same experience to the next generation. “Every one of us teaches young musicians of every age and experience level,” Martin said, “We do it to return the mentorship given to us by our teachers, but we also do it because teaching reinvigorates our own love of music. Playing with these great young players from U-M keeps us on our toes and reminds us how excited we were to become orchestral musicians ourselves.”
The University Musical Society’s New York Philharmonic residency continues through Sunday, November 19 and includes two dozen free residency events and three mainstage concerts, including a Young People’s Concert on Saturday afternoon that features two students from the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre. For full details, visit ums.org/nyphil.