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10 Things About Robert Mapplethorpe + ‘Triptych’

Learn about photographer/artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s legacy before UMS’s world premiere of Triptych: Eyes of One on Another on March 15 & 16, 2019.

Self Portrait, 1988 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Self Portrait, 1988 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

1. Robert Mapplethorpe didn’t begin his career as a photographer

In his early career, Mapplethorpe created assembled constructions and collages. These works tended to be mixed medium, combining painting, found objects, and cut outs of pornographic magazines and religious postcards. He took up photography after the encouragement from his friends John McKendry, a curator, and Sam Wagstaff, a gallery owner and Mapplethorpe’s eventual lover.1

2. His early photography was deeply rooted in 1970s New York

Mapplethorpe and his close friend and roommate Patti Smith were involved in the 1970s New York music and art scenes, frequenting legendary venues such as Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Mapplethorpe photographed two iconic album covers of that era: Patti Smith’s Horses and Television’s Marquee Moon. During this time, Mapplethorpe also was a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine.2

3. Mapplethorpe’s work was often controversial

During his time of rising popularity, Mapplethorpe photographed the New York’s BDSM scene in which he was involved. With regard to his work, Mapplethorpe stated, “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.”3

Mapplethorpe’s work has the power to upend beliefs about black/white, female/male, queer/straight, art/porn, sacred/profane, classical/contemporary, low art/high art, and political/personal.

4. Mapplethorpe was a go-to photographer for celebrity portraits

He shot portraits of Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, Cindy Sherman, Truman Capote, and, of course, himself!4

Alistair Butler, 1980 (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, used with permission.

Alistair Butler, 1980 (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, used with permission.

5. There is a strong sense of classicism throughout his work

Mapplethorpe had an intense focus on balance, harmony, and order. Traces of classical art can be found in his treatment of the body, which was often reminiscent of sculpture. Throughout his career, he also recalled classical composition in his photography of flowers and other still life objects. This often created a tension in his work between the erotic subject matter and his “high art” depictions.

About the Production… 

6. A theatrical world premiere

UMS presents the world premiere full theatrical staging of Triptych: Eyes of One on Another (the concert version premieres at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on March 5). In addition to vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and a chamber orchestra, UMS’s production at the Power Center will feature large-scale, theatrical projections of Mapplethorpe’s work (which may include graphic, sexually explicit content).

7. Bryce Dessner’s Cincinnati connection

Composer Bryce Dessner recalls the controversy and censorship trial of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 collection of photographs at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center…

8. A broadening of perspective

Librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle found profound meaning in Mapplethorpe’s perspective during his college years…

9. Roomful of Teeth

The innovative, GRAMMY-winning vocal collective Roomful of Teeth was recently profiled in The New Yorker: “From death metal to throat singing to alpine yodelling, the experimental group is changing what it means to harmonize.” Take a listen:

10. A 30-Year Reflection

This premiere event takes place 30 years after Robert Mapplethorpe’s untimely death from AIDS on March 9, 1989. UMS is proud to present this work on the influence of Mapplethorpe’s bold, voracious view of how human beings look, touch, feel, hurt, and love one another.

Experience Triptych: Eyes of One on Another, March 15 & 16, 2019 in the Power Center.

Embrace, 1982 (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used with permission_social

Embrace, 1982 (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used with permission


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Camille A. Brown’s Inspirational Moves and Message

Camille A. Brown & Dancers mesmerized audiences and schoolchildren across Southeast Michigan during their January residency.

From workshops in K-12 schools to community dance events, a sold-out School Day Performance, and the UMS debut of their powerful work, ink, here are seven of our favorite moments:

1. Teaching Artist Workshops

UMS Teaching Artists worked with Scarlett Middle School students and other local schools to learn about Camille Brown’s unique choreography and movement, in preparation for their upcoming School Day Performance. To bring the lesson full circle, Teaching Artists returned to each school to lead post-performance workshops.

Teaching Artists at Scarlett Middle School


2. Learning History through Dance

Company member Catherine Foster led a Community Movement Workshop in Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, taking participants on a journey of dance history. From a call-and-response warm-up to the “Lindy Hop”, swipe through our Instagram post to watch the class unfold!


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3. Master Class at U-M

While on campus, company member Juel D. Lane led a creative and thought-provoking master class with University of Michigan dance students.

Master Class with Juel D. Lane


4. A Cool School Day Performance

More than 1,200 K-12 students from 13 area schools (including every Scarlett Middle School student) arrived at the Power Center for a sold-out School Day Performance. The Company’s mix of cool moves, hip-hop, rhythm, and visual storytelling drew countless oohs and aahs from the young crowd!

Students arriving at the Power Center


5. A Special Q & A

After the performance, students from Scarlett Middle School met with the company. Camille shared how she found the power to express her voice through dance. She encouraged students to be resilient and stay close to their community of support, especially in the face of criticism, remarking, “If you don’t believe in who you are and what you’re doing, who will?”

Camille A. Brown & Dancers with Students


6. You Can Dance!

Camille A. Brown & Dancers company members Timothy L. Edwards and Maleek Washington invited local dancers of all ages and levels to explore movement with them at the Ann Arbor Y.

You Can Dance with Camille A. Brown & Dancers company members


7. A Poignant Closing

“Energizing, thought-provoking, and simply beautiful” is how one audience member shared his appreciation for ink, the final installation of the company’s trilogy of stories of Black identity. Explosive choreography and the rhythmic interplay between the musicians and dancers left Saturday night’s audience enthralled and wanting more.

Camille A. Brown performing

A lively Q & A after the performance shed light on the symbolism and meaning behind the theatrical choreography — all intended to expand the narrative of hopes, dreams, relationships, and community beyond entrenched stereotypes.

Our sincerest appreciation to Camille A. Brown & Dancers for a beautiful week of movement and creative inspiration. Follow @CamilleABrown on Instagram to keep up with the company’s work on and off the stage on Instagram.

The Way We Remember War

“This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.”

Thoughts on Britten’s War Requiem, written by Doyle Armbrust:

I’ve always been enamored with the vivid detail with which people of my parents’ generation can recall the day JFK or MLK was assassinated: their exact location, the temperament of the weather, and the faces of those around them. My variation on that theme involves the Challenger disaster, Operation Desert Storm, and September 11. The indelible memories of the second event on this list include the front page of the Chicago Tribune (which I saved until college), watching battleships blast 16-inch shells into the night on live television, and collecting Desert Storm baseball cards. My first sentient — if safely removed — exposure to war involved deciding whether or not to trade a SCUD missile for a Dick Cheney.

There is often a disconnect between the grandeur of war and the personal fallout from it…say, the distance between the charming stories my great uncle would tell me about being a barber on a Navy ship in the Pacific in the 1940s, and the inaccessible look in his eyes while he spun the yarn. The bridging of these two realities is what makes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem an indisputable masterpiece.

What are the first three classical music scores about war that pop into your head? For me — setting aside the Requiem for a moment — it’s Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (WWII), Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (WWII), and George Crumb’s Black Angels (Vietnam). Well, and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, which is truly one of the most cringe-worthy pieces not only by Ludwig van, but by any composer, ever (seek it out and prepare for a belly laugh). In any case, the element that each of these three war-themed pieces share with the Britten is the reckoning with the horrors of war on a personal and even spiritual level. This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.

The War Requiem consumed Britten during the years of its writing, and looking back, it’s hard to imagine that a more perfect structure could have been chosen for such a monumental piece or the solemn occasion of its premiere. In 1962, the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was erected next to its bomb-ravaged predecessor, was a study in the stirring juxtaposition of “then and now.” Britten, one of the most erudite and deep-thinking composers of any era, parallels this reality by combining the historic Requiem mass (full orchestra and chorus) with contemporary poetry from the point of view of real soldiers by Wilfred Owen (chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists). But he doesn’t stop there. With the inclusion of a children’s choir and organ, the implausible optimism that there is in fact hope for peace in the future merges its way into this landmark work.

I remember talking my way into the recently opened — and sold out for weeks — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while on a school trip to Washington, DC. What had previously existed as an abstract horror in my mind finally transformed into an experience of millions of individuals. The vast became granular. After Britten’s death, an envelope containing photographs of four soldiers — all casualties of WWII — was found amongst his things. Though merely acquaintances, these tragedies made the war immediate for the composer, rather than a conceptual event. To my ears, and despite its well-formulated structure, there is a kind of emotional whiplash between the three ensembles Britten engages on stage. Keep an ear out for the third section in the opening “Requiem aeternam,” and the way the transcendence of the mass and naivety of the children’s chorus tumbles into the fraught “What Passing Bells for These Who Die as Cattle.” It is abundantly clear that this composer is not going to allow us, the listeners, to escape into warm melancholy or ex-post-facto reveling. We are going to hear from the front lines of this worldwide atrocity.

The War Requiem can project the feeling of being constantly sucker-punched on an emotional level. The most jolting of these for me is the move from the “Requiem Aeternam: Kyrie eleison,” into the “Dies Irae” portion of the piece. In the former, lugubrious, sotto voce waves in the chorus take us to a heavenly realm before brass interruptions usher in the perturbed and breathless “Dies Irae.” Here’s an excerpt of this section by the Berlin Philharmonic:

This is a movement that, for my money, “out-Carmina-Burana-s” Carmina Burana. The contradiction of both mood and writing is nothing short of shocking, and this caroming between the earth and the heavens is the rule in this work, not the exception.

How does one end a piece that is looking to the past in equal measure to the future — one in which neither heaven nor earth provide satisfactory answers? By positing a question, of sorts.

Soon after the Gulf War erupted, I decided to find a pen pal in the US Army. I began writing to a private I did not know previously, and what I recall most clearly is that I was expecting hand-written accounts that mirrored war movie action sequences. What I received were letters honestly recounting the tedium of war. The passing of hours under a blistering sun, miles from the front lines. War was not what I thought it was.

While Britten’s text on paper reads like a closer: “Let them rest in peace, Amen,” the fact that the final words from earth are exchanged between two fallen soldiers (tenor and baritone) revolving around the “pity of war” leave one thinking that there is more to this story than the memories of World War II. Will we always be doomed to repeat this horror, or is there another way?

Perhaps the way in which we remember — or forget — such a cataclysmic event provides the answer…

Experience Britten’s War Requiem with the UMS Choral Union, Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Saturday, February 16 in Hill Auditorium.


Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

21st Century Intern Travelogue: Kandis Terry

“My summer experience as one of four UMS interns is one that I cannot put into words. This opportunity not only gave me the chance to grow as a student, but also gave me every tool I didn’t know I needed to heal as an artist.”

Kandis Terry spent the summer of 2018 in New York City with Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CABD) as part of her 21st Century Internship — a program in collaboration with UMS and the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

The best part of my time as a 21st Century Intern was that I was able to surround myself with all types of artists from diverse cultures and ancestral backgrounds. I realize that I have a voice and that my quality of movement matters. I saw the possibilities and wonders that artistic “creation”—specifically that of Black Women—can do. Through Camille’s artistry and leadership, and with her unique administrative team, I have been able to make many new professional connections and forge relationships. Here are two of my favorite experiences from my summer:

Dance/USA Annual Conference

Jim Leija, Kandis TerryOne of the most memorable experiences from my internship was attending the extraordinary Dance/USA annual conference in Los Angeles. There I engaged in a delightful conversation with leaders representing many demographics about social stature, gender, and race within movement and culture—in particular, Black men, women, boys, and girls. Although these topics are not always given the spotlight or recognition in what is known today as a common and adequate professionalism in the art of dance, Camille’s work gives voice to social issues that have been presumably swept under the rug for a long time.

Gibney Dance Center Educational Panel

Camille A. Brown, Kandis Terry, Indira Goodwine

Camille A. Brown, Kandis Terry, Indira Goodwine

Much of my time in New York was surrounded around mental health awareness. I had the pleasure of working with CABD’s Managing Director Indira Goodwine, whose sense of positive morale and work ethic I really looked up to. She taught me to grow and continue be the best version of myself, or at least strive to be.

On my first day of my internship, I observed her talk as part of a three-member panel at the Gibney Dance Choreographic Center, which represented a perfect balance of poise, eloquence, and artistic measure. Each artist spoke to their unique experiences as a professional dancer up to this point in their respective careers.

Indira was the only woman on panel, and encouraged all of the women in the room to pursue a successful career in the arts profession. She spoke about how incorporating mental wellness in your work field or place environment contributes to one’s success and overall happiness in life, with some wise words on how to conclude each day:

  • “We are in charge of what, when, and how we make both sense of and success with the findings we collect from our artistic research.”
  • “What you have to offer is more than you know.”
  • “Language matters.”

CABD dancer Maleek Washington was also on the panel, and offered great advice to those in attendance:

  • Know who you are as a person and who you are as a dancer.
  • Instagram gives you instant access to publicity at your fingertips.
  • ‘Word of Mouth’ is important.
  • Go see shows, take class!
  • Put in hard work now.

Gibney Dance Center Educational Panel

It was a great way to start my internship! From that point on I knew it was my job and my responsibility to capture and embrace all of the tasks and opportunities presented to me over these next upcoming summer months.

While at U-M, my educational experience has been enriched but challenging. This internship saved me. It showed me that many artists of color struggle with mental wellness. In response and efforts to address this epidemic, we must be resilient and push forward with our talents and passion for creativity.

At times I have felt lost, but my 21st Century Internship experience, in its entirety, was an affirmation for me, and the beginning to my course and journey towards healing and setting new goals.

Kandis Terry in NYC

Our Sweet Hereafter

Guest contributor Doyle Armbrust explores Renaissance master Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro in advance of Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance.

Do you ever have this experience, where a companion asks you what restaurants or books or music you love most, and your brain instantly empties with the velocity of an airplane toilet? The one artist who reliably clings to my brain, when these discussions involve film, is the Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It is likely because I first encountered his work during my undergrad years, when my brain could still retain information, but in any case, his 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter is one of those under-the-radar (despite winning the Grand Prix at Cannes) gems that is my go-to in these scenarios.

To tell you that the story involves a school bus careening off an icy road and into a frigid lake — an accident in which many children die — is definitively not a spoiler. And you should certainly seek this one out once you get home, in part because Ian Holm gives one of the most extraordinarily nuanced performances of any actor, ever.

The tragedy in this story is not the accident. It is the catastrophe of being left behind.

The dead, though desperately missed, are nevertheless gone and not participating in our anguish. Don’t tell the Vatican, but I think this is where Saint Peter’s remorse lives, after betraying Jesus not once but thrice. Let’s be honest, all of these scenes were inevitably (see: prophecies) going to include one guy who rats out The Son of Man’s location for a bag of silver, some guys falling asleep on the most climactic night of their lives, and of course one guy who would deny ever knowing his spiritual captain. Peter just drew the short straw on his role in this play. The tripartite deed itself is not really the cause of his pain. It’s knowing that he expedited the death of a friend, even though that death was preordained. He is left behind, and this is gutting.

Wait, this is a program essay…what are we talking about, exactly?

Right. What you’re going to experience by the Los Angeles Master Chorale is one of the most luminous musical entries from the High Renaissance, Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, or “The Tears of Saint Peter.” I’m not sure about you, but when I hear music of this era — and specifically a cappella numbers — it taps into something that feels primordial, or at the very least, elemental. Even though this piece would never have been allowed as part of a liturgy, it is sacred, and so was required to work within certain constraints. No frivolous, virtuosic singing allowed. But as any of you who have encountered a painting by Mondrian or a play by Beckett know, it is often the existence of severe constraints that produce some of the most elevating or thought-provoking art.

Much has been written about how Orlando di Lasso strips his Lagrime score down to only the essential elements, with nary an extraneous note to be found. To my mind, this is at best hyperbolic and at worst idiotic, because who is to say what notes are superfluous? But I get the sentiment. What you’ll inevitably experience is music in which the text is never obscured, and from which any vocal flourishes are completely absent. Notice how the composer captures the inescapability of regret, and the unique tone of each segment’s text. Leaning primarily on harmony and rhythm alone, how does he inhabit this psychological labyrinth Saint Peter finds himself trapped in?

A few notable examples stand out to me. In the second movement, “Ma gli archi,” we get the double-down. Not only is Peter’s guilt going to haunt him — no lesser force than God will keep this wound flowing — as though newly cut open, each day FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE. It is a fantastic allegory illuminating the fallacy of “closure.” There are some moments that we will never escape, no matter how much therapy or apologizing or pharmaceuticals we attempt. Again, the betrayal of Jesus was a dire mistake attributed to the more or less preordained human trait of self-preservation. Peter’s life was in danger, and his animal instincts kicked in to gear. The real catastrophe, even after his friend rises from the dead, is having to wake up each morning to that regret. To be left behind, even as the world soldiers on.

It is intriguing that Lasso penned this opus at the very end of his life. I don’t think that it’s projecting irresponsibly to say that if this was his swan song, Orlando was grappling with a deep regret as he neared the end. Why not a song of thanks, or a celebration of God’s creation for his final number? Perhaps he’s generously offering us the chance to reckon with our regret long before we reach the end. A possibility to know that a fault may never be forgiven, but that by taking ownership of it, we might not cower under its shadow for the rest of our lives.

Another example of the many-faceted nature of this story — which is perhaps universal — arrives with the 10th movement, “Come falda di neve.” Both the text and the music pivot to some degree here. There is a glimmer of sunshine, literally, as Peter’s fear “like a snowflake” melts in the springtime of his Master’s mercy. It’s not total absolution that is given, but a kind of beautiful balance offered in which the betrayal lives in a space of sadness, rather than self-hatred. The relief is massive, even if the best-case scenario is lifelong heartache. Take a listen…

Do you hear the turn in the music? There is a compassion in the harmonies of the ninth movement, “Chi ad uno raconntár potesse,” but something lifts in “Come falda di neve.” Using only harmony and a gentler approach to the text, we — and Peter — realize that not all is lost. There may just be a reason to persevere.

One reason I love The Sweet Hereafter so devotedly is that it is patient, and doesn’t hinge on any one dramatic reveal. Lasso’s masterpiece has, until its final movement, mined the poetry of Luigi Tansillo. But in the magnificent outro, the composer exercises his editorial prerogative by writing a motet — a distinctly sacred form — and it is here that I believe the music becomes universal, and not just about the plight of Saint Peter. It is an invitation to all of us to a reprieve, if not absolution. Christ may have had nails brutally hammered into his hands and feet, but this was a pain measured in hours. It pales in comparison to years of self-condemnation.

The music that we are left with is so spare. It’s as if Lasso desires for us to lean forward: this is the moment, that more than any other, we should ponder. It feels like a rendezvous with the divine, whatever that means to you. Whether your transgression caused a bus to plunge beneath the ice, or your lot was to fulfill a prophecy…or perhaps something altogether less sensational: hope is still within the grasp of those left behind.

Get tickets to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance of Lagrime di San Pietro on Sunday, January 20, 2019.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Wynton Marsalis’s Musical Gifts

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra brought incredible musical gifts to Ann Arbor to kick off the Holiday season.

From an inspiring School Day Performance with 2,400 young people to a full house at Hill Auditorium, the legendary ensemble spread joy and good cheer with the debut of their “Big Band Holidays” national tour. Here are seven of our favorite moments:

1. Welcome Dinner

U-M Director of Athletics Warde Manuel and UMS President Matthew VanBesien welcomed Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra members to a private dinner to kick off their week of rehearsals.

Warde Manuel, Wynton Marsalis, and Matthew VanBesien

Warde Manuel, Wynton Marsalis, and Matthew VanBesien

Guests were treated to a performance with jazz students from Ann Arbor’s Community High School, who also spent time with Wynton and the band members throughout dinner.

2. A surprise guest!

U-M Jazz Studies student Ben Green got quite the surprise — a chance to play lead trumpet next to Wynton Marsalis in three rehearsals! On lightning fast notice, Ben graciously stepped in for a weather-stranded member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.


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3. School Day Performance

More than 2,400 K-12 students from 41 area schools, including 318 students from Detroit, brought anticipation and joy to the School Day Performance at Hill Auditorium.

School Day Performance

4. Workshops in local schools

Many students participated in free pre-show workshops at their schools, where professional teaching artists introduced jazz and what the students could expect to experience at Hill.

5. Q & A with Students

Detroit High School students had the amazing opportunity to visit with JLCO’s bass player Carlos Henriquez, who shared his own experience of growing up in the South Bronx and how an afternoon school program and his commitment to music helped him become a professional musician.

Carlos Henriquez with Students

6. Backstage with Wynton

Tappan Middle School students had a quick backstage “meet & greet” with the jazz great, who enthusiastically supports the ways UMS engages young people at a critical point in their lives.

Wynton Marsalis with Tappan Middle School Students

7. Big Band Holidays!

Vocalists Vuyo Sotashe and Veronica Swift added to the holiday magic and big band sound of Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO.


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A huge thank you to Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a week of unforgettable experiences for audiences of all ages! Be sure to follow @WyntonMarsalis and @JazzDotOrg on Instagram as they tour into the new year.

“It’s Going to Get Personal”

Written by Doyle Armbrust

The truth is, you probably don’t need program notes for Berlioz’s ubiquitous Symphonie fantastique

You’ve likely read about his infatuation with the actress, and maybe even caught Leonard Bernstein dishing on “dope” in this context during one of his Young People’s Concerts. Even if this is your first encounter with this game-changing work, I’d wager that you could come up with a narrative pretty close to the intended one without having read a word about it. It’s that good.

What strikes me over and over about this piece is the sheer vulnerability of it. Granted, it is the grand gesture of all grand gestures — writing and re-writing a piece in the hopes of winning over its literal heroine — but to have written something so deliberately personal, and to be so publicly overwhelmed by desire…this is next-level. I hope you’ll forgive me for being emboldened to do so, but I took this opportunity to tell my own story of delusion and heartbreak.

It’s not easy, exposing oneself like this, but it is rather cathartic. To that end, if the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s performance stirs up a similar memory for you, and you’re inclined to share it, please contribute your story below. Whether you choose to share it or not, this music is likely to stoke some smoldering memories for you…

One: Dreams, Passions

What one needs to know about the Symphonie Fantastique is that it is autobiographical, and relates a very specific narrative. Berlioz fell hard for a Shakespearian actress by the name of Harriet Smithson, after seeing her in the role of Ophelia in Hamlet in 1827. As a Frenchman, he didn’t even speak her language…

I remember it as if it were last summer, despite the fact that this is some 15 years in the otherwise hazy past. I was seated at the back of a tent at the Coachella festival, back when it still claimed electronic music credibility. My shirt was damp from the oppressive, midday desert sun, and I was scribbling notes on the current act in a leather-bound notebook, oblivious to the revelries engulfing me and with no publication awaiting my submission. The music was rapturous, and as ink flowed onto page, I had my epiphany. With revelers swirling around me, I realized that I had made a mistake. I had let you go, but as my idée fixe — my preoccupation and my fascination — the 5,500 miles that separated us were but a minor hindrance to my love. I tore out my pages and began scribing a desperate letter to you.

Two: A Ball

The waltz you hear is a literal waltz. This is our hero, hysterically trying to catch the attention of his muse. Harriet could not be persuaded to attend the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, so Berlioz revised the work and scheduled a second, which the now less-famous and less-glamorous Harriet attended — in the composer’s own VIP seats — without any inkling that this magnificent piece was about her.

These bodies, writhing around me and heedless in their ecstasy, stirred latent feelings of longing in me. I was jealous of their proximity to each other, and my emptiness discovered new depths. I scrambled to remember snippets of Portuguese, your native language, with which I could draw you back near me. This was music without pause, and each new track escalated my desire to be with you. We had parted ways for earnest and logical reasons. These reasons escaped my brain in a capricious instant.

Three: Scene in the Country

Berlioz was mesmerized by the symphonies of Beethoven — the “Pastoral” symphony looms large here — and at the ripe old age of 27, he set out to put his demons to paper with this earth-shattering work. It can’t be understated just how ahead of its time was this piece, or just how dramatic an effect it had on classical music, and the Russians in particular. Listen for the conversation in this music — a conversation with but one conversant.

I had intended the flight to Oporto to offer me the opportunity to daydream about you, but my seat mate insisted on chattering for all seven hours of it. As she spoke, I nodded and mumbled agreements as I imagined dining on arroz de marisco and swilling vinho verde from crude glasses with you. I saw the fisherwomen at the roadside, cajoling us to spend the night in their homes. I smelled the brine of low tide, wishing for a moonlit promenade along the shore. I longed for the long, languid car rides, during which directions would be sought every hour or so along those unmarked, unpaved roads. As the plane skidded onto the runway, my head a blur of jet lag, my body awoke to the terrifying realization that this was our second go of it. Your family would be livid if I broke away from you again.

Four: March to the Scaffold

If Symphonie fantastique had been written in the era of the Billboard Top 100, this would have emphatically been the single. This is the number that upended classical music for decades. Berlioz claims to have penned it in a single evening, but that sounds a bit like Edward Albee’s assertion that all of his plays hit the typewriter fully edited. In any case, it is difficult to think of any piece of lyric-less music that paints a more vivid, or more riveting, scene than that of Berlioz’s opium-induced fever dream — one in which he kills his beloved and is marched to the gallows to meet his grisly fate.

What bliss, what intoxication, to hold you in my arms once again. Each day feels like its own enterprise, its own era even, and as we careen down the coast in your tiny hatchback, my mind reels at the possibility of transposing my life to this wondrous place. We stop to inhale the effluvium of a sticky hash, our minds dripping out our ears as we soak in the failing light of dusk. Erroneously believing our wits about us, we head inside a chapel decorated top to bottom with the bones of the long dead. Vacant eye sockets stare out at us from the walls as we explore this breathtaking memento mori. It would be poetic if this were the moment at which I realized that I was too young to commit to this existence, but it would be on our return north, surrounded by high-rises and the cacophony of car horns that I would leap to that calamitous understanding. Still, I look back to those desiccated bones and think that in that moment, something became clearer.

Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

The first rehearsal of Symphonie fantastique was a disaster. The theater was unprepared for Berlioz’s army of 130 musicians, and carpenters scrambled to build makeshift stands for them. Because of the fracas, only the Ball and the March were played, the latter of which drew enthusiastic applause from the performers. This final chapter of the symphony unfurls like a familiar fantasy for anyone who has ever been in reckless, fateful love. In the moment, everything seems imperative, and the slightest adversity feels cataclysmic. Berlioz, having been dismissed by Harriet in real life, imagines her throwing herself into an orgy with devils. Yep. That bad.

I can’t bear to envision the fury of your parents and friends when you divulge my departure. I imagine your father hurling his after-dinner coffee mug across the room as your mother curses my name with some ancient phrase. Knowing it is right does not preclude my brain from conjuring thoughts of your future beaus, and the exuberance with which you’ll dive into those relationships, after my failure of you. I can only guess that now, some 15 years hence, you’ve either forgotten me, or, when reminded of my existence, you snarl.

I don’t know which is worse.

Get tickets to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner conduct Symphonie fantastique with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Friday, October 12.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Welcome, Omar Offendum

For the upcoming season, UMS is excited to welcome Omar Offendum, a Syrian American rapper, poet, hip hop artist and activist, as the 2018-2019 Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist.

Interview by Allie Taylor
Omar Offendum

Offendum, who is also a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow — one of just five nominated throughout the country — plans to use his time with UMS to develop a project that aims to help Arab Americans better understand their identity in the U.S., and inform people about the refugee crisis, immigration, and what it means to be Arab American. He plans to present the project he will be working on during his residency at the Kennedy Center next year.

Offendum, who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended an Arab school which combined curricula from the Middle East for Arab and Islamic studies with the local U.S. curriculum for other subjects. His studies included Arabic poetry, which served as a preliminary inspiration for his own work.

“(Arabic poetry) is what many people describe to be the backbone of the Arabic language,” Offendum said. “Poetry is a very integral part of our culture. As is music.”

Offendum studied architecture at the University of Virginia. During his time there, he began to experiment with making beats and songwriting, and found his true passion in artistic expression through music. As a Syrian-American, Offendum has much to say regarding his experience in America with a hybridized identity, and aims to explain exactly who he is and why he’s proud of the cherished culture he comes from.

A year and a half after graduating from college, Offendum moved to Los Angeles to work for an architecture firm for 10 years. While working as an architect, he was also working as a musician, building his platform and social media following and moonlighting as a performer/rapper. “I love architecture and always will, but I moved toward the aspect of artistic expression that I was most drawn to at the time: music, rapping, and performing. I get a great sense of gratification from performing that has driven my career.” Offendum, who describes hip-hop as being the “sonic upbringing of his youth”, hopes to build bridges culturally, lyrically, and musically with his work.

What do you hope to achieve during your time at UMS as this season’s Research Residency Artist?

“I’m really excited about my time at UMS. I’ve got a couple projects that I’d like to work on, but one in particular is kind of like the next phase of my performance. I’ve been moving further into the direction of theatrical, live music performances. When I started out initially I was rapping with a DJ, which is awesome and I’ll continue to do that, but I’ve been incorporating a lot more live music into my performances these days, namely Arabic instrumentation, blending and fusing it with Western music and instrumentation.”

Offendum is pulling from a number of well known Arabic stories and aspects of culture to use as a lens through which he can examine his ideas.

“In my music and in my performances, I have been working to help Arab Americans better understand their story, to help immigrants understand immigration here in the U.S., to help Americans better understand America in more cohesive way, and to help inform a lot of what is happening today in terms of the refugee crisis and immigration in America. Hopefully by the end of my time, I’ll have some semblance of a foundation to be able to perform it for people. Being in Michigan is really great because first, it’s Michigan, but also, the proximity to Dearborn and being able to work with all the incredible Arab musicians who live in Dearborn will be a great asset. Also, all the resources at the University that are at my disposal will definitely be very helpful, from Arabic professors, to people working in the realm of hip hop, and Arab American studies. And then there’s Detroit, where there’s this incredibly rich heritage — from Motown to J. Dilla. So, I look forward to being able to tap into all of those things, and being inspired to get this project going. I already know it’s a labor of love, so what folks see and hear in March might not resemble at all what the final manifestation might be, but I’m excited for this to be the first step and stab at that.

I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity with UMS to be able to flesh it out and work on it, so that when I present it in Washington D.C. the following month, it can just be that much more awesome.”

Do you consider your art to have political motivation? How would you say your art has changed in the past 5 years? In the current political climate?

“I hate to be described as a “political rapper”. That’s not how I approach my work. I try to write and speak to my experience as thoughtfully, honestly and articulately as I can. It just so happens that I am from Syria, and I am living in the U.S. in 2018 with a Muslim background and an immigrant story, so that by nature becomes a political act every time I get on stage. It’s something that I’ve maintained for well over a decade. Halfway through my college career 9/11 happened, and I quickly saw I could use this art and music and poetry as a way to bridge these seemingly opposed sides of my identity together in a way that was meaningful to me, and to people who were having a difficult time understanding what was going on with the U.S./Middle East politics and relations.

At the end of the day, it’s not about telling people what I’m not. It’s about bridge building. It’s meeting people where they’re at. I’m not afraid to reach out and introduce people to my culture in a way that is digestible and relatable. But also in that, to not dumb it down in any way, because I think it can easily happen. I don’t want to fetishize and romanticize and give people some sort of exotic experience. I just want to tell people exactly what it is what I do, and where I’m from, and why I love it. And in that, there’s also the ability to speak to this “new” experience of being an Arab American. It’s really not that new, it’s been around for over a hundred years, so it’s important for people to understand that even what they might think of as “American” is a lot more diverse and has always been. That, in fact, is what America is. America has always been much bigger of an idea and of a place and of something to strive for, and i just try to remind people of that.”

You’re going to be doing a talk on Thursday October 18, called “Syrianamerican: A Nation State of Mind”. What can people expect from the event?

“SyrianAmericana is the name of my first solo album. It very much who I am and what my work embodies: building bridges with these two/multiple communities I am a part of and have the honor of representing around the world. It is an experience that seeks to connect a lot of things that, sadly, because of the state of affairs between the U.S. and the Middle East these days, have been disconnected by the media for various reasons — to justify wars, or immigration policies — but my work tries to push back on that.

What I will be talking about in the class is giving people a backstory on me and the work that I do and why I do what I do (using examples from artists who’ve inspired me over the years). I’ll also be reciting verses that I’ve written along the way that speak to different points in my career, and performing songs. It’ll be equal parts presentation and conversation. I look forward to having folks engage, ask questions, and tell me what they think. I know that I have a particular perspective(s) on what it means to be Arab American, but I also know that for folks in Dearborn and Detroit, and that’s also something that is unique in itself too, so I look forward to hearing from the students and teachers about that as well.”

What is your ultimate goal with your art? What is the ultimate message you are trying to send?

“My goals are embedded in the themes and ideas of my work and how I approach my work. At the end of the day, if I’m able to just make people happy, comfortable, and more at ease, then I’ve done my job. And certainly within that there’s this desire to “break down misconceptions” about Arabs and Muslims and Syrians, but it’s not on the nose like that. It’s much more the fact that the medium is the message, that people see me as this confident, immigrant Muslim male, who can rap and who can pull from Arab poetry and do all this stuff. In that there is a message that obviously counters what they’re used to hearing about people who might have this background, and I think that’s important.

But also, most importantly, I’m indebted to hip hop culture, and with that, clearly, African American culture. There’s no separating one from the other, so I very much want to make sure that people from those communities appreciate my voice and my perspective, and know that I’m not doing it in a way that is parasitic or disingenuous. I recognize always that this is an African American artform that I am drawing inspiration from and that I’m speaking my experience through, so that’s also very important to me for people to recognize. And at the same time, you have to understand that it’s bigger than hip hop. Hip hop is the manifestation of something that has been happening for a very long time. Trying to build those bridges across time, and across communities is very important to me, and I think it’s becoming more and more apparent in my work, in the projects I embark upon, and in the spaces I perform in.”

What would you say is your greatest strength as an artist?

“Performing and connecting with audiences in a deep way while I’m on stage is really important to me, but also is the reason why I don’t necessarily love performing for gigantic audiences. I don’t really have those meaningful connections that I get to have when it’s several hundred people in an auditorium, a classroom, a coffee shop, etc. And that has a lot to do with the nature of what I do, which is engaging people in this way, with storytelling. It’s a lot more intimate than what most big festival shows maybe can be, and I enjoy that. I enjoy being able to look into people’s eyes. I like being in settings where I’m able to go back and forth with people, and be asked questions, and speak to a lot of these things that I talk about in my music but in a deeper way.

I code and bury a lot of ideas and symbols and imagery and iconography and messages in my lyrics, that could easily go over people’s heads if they don’t get a chance to really dig deeper into them. That’s why I enjoy doing things in classrooms, where we get to talk about them, and talk about the bigger inspirations and ideas behind them. You find comfort in your own voice and your own strengths and that’s really what I’ve been leaning on for quite some time now. It’s important for the next generation of Arab, Syrian and Muslim kids here to have that example. As I mature as an artist, I try to still approach my work with a sense of humility and remind people that there is still a lot to learn and there is always room for growth.”

The UMS ECE Research Residency is a competitive program that provides time and resources for an early career artist to spend an extended period of time in Ann Arbor developing a new work while sharing their practice with the U-M and southeastern Michigan communities.