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Challenging Times Require Challenging Art

 

Matthew VanBesien in Nickels Arcade, with the 2017-18 UMS No Safety Net brochure. Photo by Jesse Meria.

 

When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy.  Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?

Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.

But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.

No Safety Net Brochure Cover

Program cover for “No Safety Net”

This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.

And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.

But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.

A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”

As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”

As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.

These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.

The cast of Hamilton addresses Vice President Pence. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.

At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.

We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.

No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.

When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.

Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.

 

Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.

Behind the Scenes: University of Michigan Students Perform with New York Philharmonic

As part of the UMS residency with New York Philharmonic, Jamie and Jessica, students from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, performed on stage with the orchestra at Hill Auditorium.

Go behind-the-scenes from audition to performance in this video.

Learn more about the 2017-18 season concerts and residency experience.

Behind the Scenes: 2017 New York Philharmonic Visit in Photos

As part of the 2017-18 UMS season, the New York Philharmonic visited Ann Arbor for three concerts and many educational residency activities in November 2017. Here are some of our favorite photos captured during the residency.

Learn more and the New York Philharmonic concerts and residency experience.

Behind the Scenes: Off The Grid

UMS and the New York Philharmonic went Off The Grid for two pop-up concerts with New York Philharmonic musicians and University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance students at Avalon and Fred’s in Ann Arbor on November 16, 2017.

Full New York Philharmonic concerts and residency information.

Student Spotlight: Casey Voss with the New York Philharmonic and the NYU Music Experience Design Lab

Editor’s note: As part of the UMS 21st Century Artist Internships program, four students interned for a minimum of five weeks with a dance, theater, or music ensemble part of our 2017-2018 season. Casey Voss is one of these students. This summer, he was embedded with the New York Philharmonic.

Below, Casey shares his travel stories with the orchestra in advance of the New York Philharmonic’s return Ann Arbor for three concerts and many residency activities November 17-19, 2017. 

Over the course of my internship I worked alongside two arts organizations: the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab) and the New York Philharmonic Archives Department. I was thrilled to be involved with two groups that make a tremendous impact on a global scale. MusEDLab is involved in a wide spectrum of projects, including creating interactive digital content to facilitate music education for children. In addition to being a world-renowned orchestra, the New York Philharmonic is responsible for extensive outreach projects for early education and community engagement.

I spent the first week of my internship exploring some of the projects that the MusEDLab had been developing. Groove Pizza is a fun space for children effortlessly write their first beat using colors and shapes. Projects in collaboration with the Philharmonic included the various Variation Playgrounds where the user recomposes such classics as Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. MusEDLab also creates more research-driven content, such as “Mahler Grooves,” an interactive platform that allows users to explore Mahler’s Sixth symphony with multiple scores and recordings synced in real time.

Photos: On Left, group photo of Guitar Mash NYC’s first-ever youth event, hosted by MusEdLab at NYU Steinhardt. This program is an incredible opportunity for young songwriters and beginners to come together and share their music. On Right, MusEdLab explores their latest analytics data at their weekly “sync meeting”.

Meanwhile, I made my first visit to the New York Philharmonic Archives. I was introduced to director Barbara Haws who gave me the 30-second tour of of an incredibly dense office space. Being surrounded by Grammy awards, Gustav Mahler’s baton, and countless volumes of historic documents sent me straight to music-nerd heaven. After introductions were out of the way, she set me behind a computer screen with the complete volume of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (YPCs) and said, “go!”

I was immediately overwhelmed at the scope of this content. There were so many episodes––53 to be exact! As alluring as it may have seemed, I wasn’t prepared to sit in a fancy chair and watch T.V. for the next 53 hours. I quickly realized that there was a need for a better way to navigate these programs, but I wasn’t quite sure what that would entail.

The technology that I had witnessed at the MusEDLab continued to settle in my brain. That evening on the 2 train I had my “Eureka!” moment, relating  directly to the “Mahler Grooves” platform that I had encountered days before. What if the technology that allowed users to toggle between different scores and recordings could be applied to the various scripts and musical cues concerning the YPC episodes? This tool would streamline the research process, allowing users to spend more time making connections with the data and less time sifting through the content.

Photos: On left, Alex Ruthmann (right) and I pose for a photo during the final week of my internship. On Right, a sunny day in front of Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center.

That evening I excitedly drafted a one-page proposal of what this project entailed. I sent it to Alex Ruthmann, my mentor and primary contact at MusEDLab. He took me under his wing and guided my creative process from scratch. Much of what he suggested required that I learn to code in HTML, CSS, and Javascript—three languages for which I was unfamiliar. I spent several days crash-coursing them and trying to decipher how they were meant to work together to build a web page. Though this process was tedious I managed to craft a webpage that consisted of properly aligned-text and a picture of Leonard Bernstein (which is much trickier than what you might think!).

Equally as as gratifying was the fantastic time I was having exploring New York City. There was plenty of time to visit museums, eat pizza slices the size of my face (or larger), and attend as many shows as possible. Observing the New York Philharmonic’s rehearsal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in David Geffen Hall was one of the highlights of my visit. Seeing a world class ensemble perform some of the most gut-wrenching repertoire at 9 am on a Thursday really put things into perspective.

Photos: On left, enjoying a Super Slice at the Pizza Barn in Yonkers, NY. On right, a view from an empty lobby in David Geffen Hall as the New York Philharmonic prepares for a rehearsal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

I made many new friends both inside and outside of the internship as well. Some of these friendships began at the Music and Mentoring House (MMH), a brownstone walk-up in Harlem where I lived for six weeks. Hosted by American Operatic Soprano Lauren Flanigan, MMH provided all of the basic needs for artists interning in the city. Lauren cooked, cleaned, and told us incredible stories from her illustrious career. Her generosity eased our anxieties and allowed us to remain focused on finishing our projects. I’m grateful for the opportunities that Lauren created for us to escape the chaos of city life.

Photos: On the left, Sandbox Percussion Quartet takes the stage at the hip Brooklyn rooftop bar simply known as “The Roof” on the final evening of my internship. On the right, taking it easy after a hard-day’s work on the Hybar Pavilion, a twisting grass canopy located on the rooftop of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Since leaving New York, I’ve kept in touch Alex and Barbara, continuing to refine the project for a collaborative course between Harvard College and the University of Michigan. Students in this class are investigating the impact that Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts have had on his audience. One of the most rewarding aspects of this internship was creating something designed to make other’s lives easier. This project was my first opportunity to present and execute an idea for which I had total creative control. Alex guided my work, but our dynamic was unlike that of a typical teacher-student relationship. All of these factors coming together granted me a real-world experience—a tangible achievement that impacts the lives of other people. As I transition from school to the professional world, this 21st Century Artist Internship has given competitive edge in an ever-evolving artistic landscape.

The New York Philharmonic performs in Ann Arbor November 17-19, 2017.

How to Win Fans and Influence (Young) People

Editor’s note: The New York Philharmonic recreates a Young People’s Concert on November 18, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrust, a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, writes about broadcasts of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from 1960–1972. 

Back in my freelancing days, I played in an orchestra with a gambling problem.

No, not March Madness brackets or Fantasy Football drafts. These bets surrounded the conductor, and one element of his time atop the podium each concert. Actually, the bet was about just that: his time on the podium. This conductor was notorious for delivering the longest, most meandering pre-performance soliloquies any of the musicians had ever been subjected to, and the most epic of these during my tenure clocked in at…wait for it…just over 40 minutes.

Students waiting to purchase tickets to Bernstein Benefit Concert, October 10, 1988

Students waiting to purchase tickets to the Leonard Bernstein Benefit Concert in Ann Arbor on October 10, 1988. Photo from UMS Archives.

These exhaustiv­e (and thoroughly exhausting) preambles were ostensibly for the benefit of the audience, to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the music, you understand. Though capable with his baton, this Chatty Cathy in tails somehow lacked that one, essential social skill: recognizing the moment an entire concert hall and all the musicians on stage have simultaneously glazed over as though auditioning for The Walking Dead, en masse.

The one-two punch of this verbal anesthesia was 1) The orator appeared more infatuated with his own factoids than the experiential welfare of his hostages, and 2) Condescension permeated the delivery to such an extent that “mansplaining” doesn’t quite capture it. This was “splain-splaining.”

The thing is, classical music already has a(n image of) superiority problem. Which is to say, the uninitiated largely assume that those of us who seek this music out have participated in Ken Burns-level research on the subject and undergone extensive training with Clint Eastwood to perfect the glare reserved for mid-symphony clappers. The truth of the matter is that it’s familiarity that emboldens and vitalizes our love of these pieces, not the ability to identify augmented-sixth chords on the fly.

Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Familiarity is something with which my conductor was unconcerned. It is also something Leonard Bernstein cultivated in perhaps his most enduring legacy, the Young People’s Concerts of 1960–1972.

I am of the opinion that these broadcasts are more important than any of the conductor-composer’s many recordings, his Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall, or his Mahler at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. He snagged a CBS prime time slot for three of his 13 seasons, for crying out loud. But why do I, and maybe you, and so many of my professional contemporaries remember with such relish a parent bringing home these VHS tapes from the library? Why are the segments uploaded to YouTube littered with the delicious pangs of nostalgia for these presentations? (Personal favorite: “Grew up on this. Sigh. Better than ANY college Music 101 course anywhere ever.”)

I think Bernstein’s approach to music advocacy and enlightenment can be best summed up in his narration to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (CBS Great Performances, 1982). Departing from the usual introductions to the cat/bird/duck/wolf/grandfather themes, Bernstein poses each audio snippet as a pop quiz, congratulating the listener with, “Right again!,” and, “You’re batting a thousand!” There is empowerment and affirmation in his belief in your knowledge, and a gentle expectation that you’ll be back for more.

Leonard Bernstein and kids. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.

This familiarity with the audience and conversational delivery is all over the Young People’s Concerts, from the grainy black-and-white films of the early 1960s up through the groovy color broadcasts (and neckties) of the early 1970s. Even the title suggests a level of maturity lacking in many or most of the kid-centered events I’ve come across in concert halls around the US.

Bernstein didn’t play it safe in these shows, either. “The Genius of Paul Hindemith” sounds like the punchline to an undergrad viola joke, given how under-appreciated the composer (and champion of the viola) continues to be. And yet, in this episode, Bernstein pulls apart the right and left hands of the Three Exercise Pieces for piano to illuminate the concept of cross-relationships and poly-tonality. These are not concepts most civilians will be aware of, but by drawing a parallel to Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, what was opaque becomes transparent. It is a discovery, an unveiling…not a lecture.

Have you ever experienced that oh-so-cringe-y moment at a kids’ concert, when the speaker attempts to update the themes of the music with a tenuous reference to pop culture? Kill me now. Bernstein, though, so genuine in his love for the symphonic repertoire and eager to share why, manages to equate the psychedelia of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with that of the Beatles without ever slipping into the aforementioned pandering. “[It’s] the first musical description ever made of a trip…” the conductor tells the 1969 audience.

If decades have elapsed since you last watched one of these brilliant broadcasts, let me assure you that not only do they hold up exceedingly well — there is even more to be mined in watching them as an adult. I found myself gasping while watching the “Who Is Gustav Mahler” episode, having recently read a collection of Bernstein’s personal correspondences in which his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, writes: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” This letter is of course in reference to Bernstein having told Montealegre that he was gay, and watching his passionate description of Mahler (a far lesser-known composer in 1960, when the piece aired) as a man living two disparate lives, simultaneously, is simply heartbreaking.

Bernstein Benefit, Oct. 29, 1988 - Bernstein with visitors

Leonard Bernstein meets with students at the Leonard Bernstein Benefit in Ann Arbor in 1988. Photo from UMS archives.

This essay isn’t about pining for “the good old days,” though. For instance, a scan of the New York Philharmonic musicians in these videos reminds the viewer just how monochromatic, and what a “bro-down,” was the roster. And to be fair, the Young People’s Concerts landed its primetime slot in large part because the FCC had its undies in a bundle about the lack of wholesome programming. What Bernstein did better than anyone before or since, though, is to make the sharing of musical knowledge a centerpiece, rather than a side-hustle, of his time at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Add to that an irrepressible desire to share his enthusiasm and delight in this music, and you have a legacy that defies the Cocker Spaniel-esque attention span of history.

P.S.: If you’re hungry for something new in the vein of the Young People’s Concerts, check out the TED Talk by Bernstein’s protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas, and then chase down his excellent Keeping Score series.

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

The New York Philharmonic returns to Ann Arbor for concerts and residency activities November 17-19, 2017.

Call for Stories: New York Philharmonic

leonard bernstein and young people
Photo: Leonard Bernstein with young people. Photo courtesy of New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Faculty and students from the University of Michigan, New York University, and Harvard University are collaborating on a cross-campus initiative to archive stories of audience members who experienced Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts as children.

If you experienced Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts in your youth, either live or on television, we invite you to participate in an interview regarding the impact these events had on your musical life. The University of Michigan’s “Music in the U.S.” course is joining forces with the New York Philharmonic Archives for this oral history project, and interviews will be held in both New York City and Ann Arbor.

If interested, please email Professor Jessica Getman at jgetman@umich.edu; interviews will be scheduled around the weekend of the New York Philharmonic’s residency in Ann Arbor, November 17–19, 2017.

UMS/New York Philharmonic Residency: By the Numbers

UMS’s residency with the New York Philharmonic in October 2015 touched unprecedented numbers of people through performances, master classes, educational activities, and the halftime show at the U-M Homecoming Football game against Northwestern.

A highlight reel of the weekend’s activities:

Performances

The New York Philharmonic gave performances of three different programs in Hill Auditorium October 9-11, 2015. Total attendance was 7,945 across all three performances . First-time UMS ticketbuyers accounted for 38% of the total audience. Attendees came from 37 states plus the District of Columbia, and from 8 foreign countries.

Student Attendance

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/08/15. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/08/15. Photo by Chris Lee

Students purchased more than 2,250 tickets at a significant discount and accounted for nearly 30% of paid attendance. UMS subsidized over $110,000 in discounted tickets for students. In addition, students accounted for an estimated 75% of those attending the various residency activities over the course of the multi-day residency.

Residency Activities

As part of the multi-day residency, members of the New York Philharmonic participated in 36 additional public and private activities, including lectures by various Philharmonic staff (5); a side-by-side chamber music concert (and rehearsal) in which New York Philharmonic principal musicians played alongside U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance graduate students (2); classroom visits (5); master classes and conducting roundtables (17); visits to three Ann Arbor high schools (4); an event pairing medical students with Philharmonic musicians (1); an open rehearsal for conducting students (1); and performing at the U-M Hospital as part of the Gifts of Art program (1). The total reach of these activities was 2,495.

In addition, UMS selected U-M student and percussion major Evan Saddler as part of its 21st Century Arts Internship program, and he was placed as an intern with the New York Philharmonic for the summer leading up to the residency. He writes about his experiences on this blog.

Half-time with the New York Philharmonic Brass and the U-M Marching Band

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/10/15. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/10/15. Photo by Chris Lee

One of the highlights of the residency was the inclusion of the New York Philharmonic brass section in the University of Michigan Homecoming Football game halftime show, along with the U-M Marching Band, the U-M Alumni Band (a Homecoming tradition), and the UMS Choral Union. Alan Gilbert conducted the 1,000+ musicians in selections from Aida, Bolero, Carmen, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and other works. Total game attendance was 110,452, and the video of the halftime show has received tens of thousands of additional views.

The “digital Big House” resulted in nearly 200,000 people engaged through social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and umslobby.org. The 9 videos that UMS produced during the course of the residency received almost 50,000 views over the course of the weekend.

Eugene M. Grant

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/09/15. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic at Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor Residency, 10/09/15. Photo by Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic residency marked the first gift of $1,000,000 to UMS, from UMS National Council member Eugene M. Grant (’38, LSA). At 97, Mr. Grant came to Ann Arbor for the weekend’s activities and called it “one of the most memorable events of the past four decades.” Mr. Grant was celebrated at a special “Victors for the Arts” gala dinner on Thursday, October 8 on the stage of Hill Auditorium.

Members of the media interested in more information about the program should contact Sara Billmann, UMS Director of Marketing & Communications, at sarabill@umich.edu.

NY Phil at Schools

Last week, New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Gersen visited Huron High School and other Ann Arbor area schools as part of a 5-year partnership between the orchestra and UMS.

Interested in more? Explore more behind the scenes video moments with the orchestra on our Facebook page.

Highlights from the Field

On October 10, musicians of the New York Philharmonic took to the football field along side the U-M Marching Band at the Michigan vs. Northwestern Homecoming game.

potw-nyphil-mmb

Three concerts and a slew of activities were a part of the residency, which is part of a five-year partnership with the orchestra.

Interested in more? Watch the full halftime show over at U-M Athletics.

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