“Crossing” to Whitman

March 26th, 2015 No comments

It seems that every time I attend a concert in Thomas Paine Hall, I am whisked away to another exotic time and place – the hall is a musical DeLorean, if you will. Last week, no exception, I was transported back to a darkened Civil War era battlefield beneath the stars.

Matthew Aucoin describes himself as a “daytripper in the world of words,” and, although primarily a writer of music, has taken full compositional and lyrical ownership of his most recent project, which he shared with audiences this past week. The upcoming opera Crossing opens at A.R.T. in May. Directed by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus  and featuring the Boston-based chamber ensemble A Far Cry, the opera was inspired by the poetry and journals of Walt Whitman. Aucoin and celebrated bass Davone Tines ’09 previewed excerpts from the work before a crowd of faculty, students, A.R.T. staff, and other Harvard community members, accompanied by thoughtful and sophisticated commentary by the composer.

From left: Matthew Aucoin '12, Davone Tines '09, and Diane Paulus

Matthew Aucoin ’12, Davone Tines ’09 and Diane Paulus

The pair made a fascinating stage picture, side by side in sharp performance attire. Tines stood stock still, intent and controlled and passionately respectful of the music’s power and flow. Aucoin, eyes half open, swayed and dipped through his composition, engaged full-bodily in the motion of the piece.

“You just can’t argue with a poet who grabs you by the lapels and never lets go,” Aucoin said to explain his fascination with the work and wit of Whitman. “Crossing emerged out of a sense that Whitman wrote his poetry out of need … to reconcile opposing aspects of his identity into one capacious presence.” Read more…

Marin Alsop “thrilled” as music educator

March 23rd, 2015 No comments

marin_alsopConductor Marin Alsop, music director for both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, knew that conducting was for her from a very young age and has since gone on to become one of the most influential conductors on the world stage. In addition to conducting orchestras throughout North America, South America and Europe, Alsop was also the first conductor to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant as well as the first female conductor of the BBC Last Night of the Proms in 2013. In 2008, she started the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which serves more than 800 students in the city’s public school system.

This year, she’s also the recipient of the Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award, presented annually to a nationally recognized music educator. The Office for the Arts will present Alsop the award on Tuesday, March 24. Below is an edited excerpt from our exchange.

When you began conducting, did you know that it would overlap as much as it does now with your initiatives in music education? How has your approach on music education and conducting changed over time?
I never really set out to be a “music educator” and have always been motivated by a strong desire to share my love for music with as many people as possible. I grew up with tremendous advantages because my parents gave me the gift of music and playing an instrument. Every child should have the same opportunity that I was given: to express themselves and feel the self esteem that comes from mastering a phrase of music on the violin. After seeing the transformative effect music has had on the kids in our OrchKids program, I am thrilled to call myself a “music educator.”

What is the conductor’s relationship to the audience? Is it the conductor’s vision of the music that the audience eventually hears, or is the conductor responsible for something else?
My biggest responsibility is to be the messenger of the composer. It is my responsibility to understand the composer’s motivation and intention, and to convey that to the audience through the voices of the musicians.

You’ve conducted orchestras all over the world. Have you noticed similarities or differences that have informed or shaped your views on conducting and classical music? Every orchestra has its own unique personality and sound that reflect its history, leadership, culture, traditions and people. While the technical capacity of the orchestras I conduct is extremely high and consistent, the orchestras themselves vary greatly in these other areas.

What advice would you give to young aspiring musicians and conductors?
It is the greatest privilege of all to have one’s passion becomes one’s profession. Follow your dream but never forget your great fortune to be able to live life fulfilling that dream.

A public conversation and award presentation with Marin Alsop and Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorenson will take place 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 at the Harvard Faculty Club. The event is free and open to the public.  

“Q”-ing up at OBERON

March 10th, 2015 No comments
Two of the puppets show music director Isaac Alter '16 some love.

“Q” puppets show music director Isaac Alter ’16 some love.

All but a few of the characters in the musical coming-of-age parable Avenue Q are handheld puppets animated by unconcealed actor-puppeteers who will take over OBERON Tuesday March 10 and Wednesday March 11. When the musical first opened Off-Broadway in 2003, the salacious puppet show shocked the art world with it’s staunch and whim. Today, there’s still nothing quite like it. “Think Sesame Street on steroids,” the event description of the Harvard production advises. In the midst of tech week, I spoke with director Jake Stepansky ’17 about Harvard’s production of a cherished, if churlish, musical and some of the challenges that come along when your stars are all puppets.

Why Avenue Q?
Avenue Q was one of my favorite shows growing up, and I knew all the words to every song going into this process. I’ve felt like it should be done in OBERON ever since I arrived here, and I was extremely excited when I got the chance to put it up myself. A lot of people avoid the show, even though it’s incredibly beloved, because there are so many logistical details to work out — how to get puppets, train our actors to use them, coordinate puppet switching — the list goes on and on. But I’ve had an incredible support staff that has made it possible to overcome a huge number of obstacles and put on what is, if anything, a tremendously fun and funny show.

What challenges have you come across throughout the process? Were there any surprises?
As I mentioned before, doing a show with puppets is hard. Besides the logistical issues that that entails, it’s very easy to end up with a show where the puppets just look like, well, puppets. The actors have had to learn how to channel unconscious body movements into their puppets. For example: How does a puppet breathe? How does a puppet sneeze? How does a puppet that can move only one arm do an entire choreographed dance routine? We were fortunate to be mentored by the incredible puppeteers Jonathan Little and Kaitee Tredway, and our actors have stepped up to the challenge. I think and hope that audiences will be amazed by some of the puppetry work we’re doing.

What does Avenue Q offer to a Harvard audience?
Avenue Q is about finding yourself and your place in the world, and dealing with the good and the bad and the beautiful and the terrible things that happen along the way. It’s a show that does an unbelievably good job of addressing a whole host of issues  – love and dating, racism, commitment, coming to terms with your sexuality, being unemployed. Even though the show is dirty and hilarious and whip-smart, it also has a huge heart. We hope that audiences will laugh and cry and cheer and learn and think.

A story about “A Story”

March 10th, 2015 No comments

It might be a story about a band, but talking to Danielle Lessard ’16, her play seems more a tribute to the teenage angst of the 2000s than anything else. “The one sentence tagline that I’ve been going with is “The Breakfast Club on Warped Tour,” she says.

It’s a sleepy Monday between the hours of morning and afternoon, and I’m blushing a bit as Lessard and I both eat an ambiguous maybe-breakfast, maybe-lunch (“I mean – I didn’t get up for breakfast,” she says.) Lessard’s upcoming play, It Might Be a Story about a Band, running March 12-28 in the Loeb Ex, hits embarrassingly close to home, especially as she describes her target audience: “kids who knew all the words to Misery Business, and kids who want to be taken back to the time when Fall Out Boy was still cool.”

Lessard, on the other hand, isn’t embarrassed. “I was – I am – totally a huge Paramore fan,” she says. “The Warped Tour and all that angst was generationally important for making me and a lot of kids. So the play will be weird and off-balance, because a lot of us here are weird and off-balance.” She shrugs, which looks more like a nonchalant tilt of the head, and laughs.

It Might Be a Story about a Band bears many marks of Lessard’s unapologetic style. “There’ll be a lot of music references, mostly for me,” she says. “And I guess, for full disclosure, this started off as thinly veiled fanfiction, which is something I still like because I’m lame and self-indulgent and still 13 at heart. There’s a love story in there too, because I wanted one.” (A laugh, the signature tilting shrug.) “But actually, the story is hopefully about friendship right now, characters that I love learning crazy things about starting a big artistic endeavor.” Read more…

Lessons from musical theater “Big Fish” Andrew Lippa

March 9th, 2015 No comments
Andrew Lippa at the Broadway marquee for "Big Fish." Photo: Matthew Murphy

Andrew Lippa at the Broadway marquee for “Big Fish.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

Andrew Lippa’s resume reads like a Rolodex of all the people I hope to meet in this lifetime, The composer, songwriter and singer has worked with major Broadway performers such as Kristen Chenoweth, Idina Menzel and Norbert Leo Butz, just to name a few. Lippa has penned major musicals such as The Addams Family, The Wild Party, jon & jen, Big Fish, and wrote several songs for the Broadway production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, such as My New Philosophy. Chances are, if you’ve auditioned for a musical in the last 20 years, you’ve sung a song by Andrew Lippa. He is currently in Boston working with Speakeasy Stage on a new production of Big Fish. On Mar. 9, he will conduct a master class for student performers as part of the OFA Learning From Performers. I spoke with Lippa prior to his visit to campus about his first foray into composing, his experience returning to pieces he created more than 20 years ago, and on the importance of continuing to write and create to break into a career in composing.

As a student, what made you interested in becoming a composer and songwriter?
I have no idea. My best friend in college, Jeffrey Sellerwho has remained my best friend through life, who later went on to become the producer of RENT and Avenue Q, as well as The Wild Party, and most recently Hamilton, came to me at the end of my freshman year of college at the University of Michigan and said, well, you play the piano and you love musicals, why don’t you write a musical? It seemed obvious to him and very odd to me. I’d never written music before and never thought about the people who wrote musicals. I’d never thought about how musicals were made. We wrote a 45-minute musical and played it before some of our teachers, who were very encouraging. It was very fulfilling; it incorporated my talents for singing, playing the piano, as someone who likes to tell jokes and stories. It seemed to fulfill a lot of things, and intellectually, it was one of the most challenging things I had ever tried. I think that’s why I fell in love with doing it. It challenged me intellectually in a way that merely being a singer or an actor didn’t at the time.

What comes first – the music or the lyrics?
You know the answer to that is an old joke: a contract. And of course, musical theater doesn’t work that Read more…

“One of everything” with Jennifer 8. Lee ’99

March 6th, 2015 No comments

thesearchforgeneraltso01In a telephone conversation, Jennifer 8. Lee ’99 immediately brought up chicken. “It’s actually funny,” she said. “When Ian called me up, we were totally on the same wavelength about General Tso’s chicken and the story, and I was so on board.”

During that conversation and also in my history and literature class, Lee was talking about the documentary The Search for General Tso (directed by Ian Cheney), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and will be showing March 6-8 at the Brattle Theater. (She’ll be onsite for the March 6 screening.) “It has 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes,” she interjected excitedly.” (I checked afterward; it does.)

Lee helped produce the film about the invention of Chinese-American, American-Chinese food. She compares the documentary style of the film to her book The Fortune Cookie Chroniclesa history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food.

At Harvard, Lee studied applied math with economics. “I actually didn’t take any literature classes here,” she said. “I was pretty middle-of-the-pack for Expos.” On a summer journalism internship assignment, she was pulled toward writing. “It’s obvious now, and it wasn’t obvious back then, ” she said, “but I was interviewing a guy for a story, and realized I could do this for the rest of my life.” She was on the Harvard Crimson and worked at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other media companies as she explored her interest in storytelling.

In terms of tone and style, both The Search for General Tso and The Fortune Cookie Chronicles are intended to be tongue-in-cheek and exploratory. “They’re both forms of edutainment – trying to educate, but also trying to entertain,” Lee said.  Read more…

“Crunch” out the comics

March 5th, 2015 No comments
If you’re anything like me, your visual arts education ended in 3rd grade, which is the year I mastered the stick figure. But not everyone stopped there. Students who write and draw for Harvard College Crunch Magazine, use visual art talent as a vehicle for storytelling through comics. For those who are less content than I am with their ability to convey stories through images (a stick figure can be very communicative, I’m telling you), Crunch will be hosting a “Draw or Die: Harvard College Crunch Magazine‘s Big Crunch Workshop” on Sunday, March 8 in Ticknor Lounge. I spoke with Caroline Juang ’17, one of the co-presidents of Crunch, about the magazine’s upcoming event.
What exactly is “Draw or Die”?
“Draw or Die” is Harvard College Crunch Magazine‘s first drawing workshop of the semester. We invite everyone and anyone of all skill levels who is interested in drawing, interested in comics or both to come out and try your skills at a series of drawing exercises that includes a “comics roundabout” at the end. The roundabout, which is where everyone contributes to panel-by-panel collaborative comics, has been a success in the past and the comics turn out hilarious so it is something to look forward to. Also, the workshop is not an intensive workshop. We are all here to meet people, relax, enjoy milk and cookies, and draw to our heart’s content at whichever level you’re at.
Where did you get the idea for this event?draw or die
Crunch Magazine has been hosting numerous smaller workshops last semester and in the year before that. This year my co-president Faye Zhang ’17 and I decided that we wanted to continue having workshops, but decided to host less frequent but larger workshops that we can prepare more for and give more to the attendees who come. The workshop is a collaboration from all of our board members during our weekly meetings in Leverett Art Room on Sunday afternoons. We plan out what our goal is for the workshop, then think of specific exercises and lay out the agenda. The exercises themselves were imagined by our workshop coordinator Ben Adegbite ’17, who is tasked to think of ideas that we later all finalize together as a group.
What do you hope to achieve from this event?
I hope that we will get to know more people who are interested in comics around the Harvard community and bond with current friends. I hope that people will find these exercises helpful and fun and learn something new about their own abilities.

Read more…

Pudding on a show (Hasty style)

Reed Silverman '15 plays "Cruella Seville" for HPT.

Reed Silverman ’15 plays “Cruella Seville” for HPT.

The Hasty Pudding Theatricals is in its 167th season, which means it has been performing original, student-written material for more than a century. I spoke with Pudding president Jason Hellerstein about the process of putting on an original show every year, as well as balancing a college class schedule. It’s worth noting that I am a member of the Pudding cast.

What’s the timeline leading up to the opening of the show every year?
We hold a comp for the script starting in April and continuing through July, when we choose the winning team. Then we come back to school in the fall, and the script is revised up until rehearsals start in January. Around that time, the cast, the tech crew, the band and the business staff (about 50 people in all) come to campus during J-Term. We work full days up until the preview of the show at Woman of the Year, and then rehearse all the following week until the show premieres at Man of the Year.

What’s most impressive about the Pudding process?
I think the most impressive thing about the show is just how much time and effort everyone’s able to put into it. We all take 2-1/2 hours out of our day almost every day for the first five weeks of the semester just to put the show on, and that’s in addition to the two weeks of rehearsals and a tour to New York and Bermuda.

How is working with professional designers such as the director, choreographer and set designer?
The Pudding has several professionals, who come in during J-Term and help put together the show. They Read more…

Cameron Carpenter smashes the organ stereotype

Cameron Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter is on a mission to smash stereotypes about organs, and he’s breaking all of the rules along the way. A video on his website shows Carpenter walking onto a stage before a full audience, clad in a muscle tee, shiny pants and his custom, heeled-and-crystal-studded organ slippers. But the 34-year-old organist has shocked the classical world with more than just his rock-star style. Carpenter recently worked with organ builders Marshall & Ogletree to create the revolutionary International Touring Organ, a portable, digital organ that has allowed Carpenter to take his music to the streets. The ITO made its debut last March at Lincoln Center, and since then, Carpenter has toured with the instrument in Europe and the U.S., playing selections from Bach to Japanese film scores. The ITO will make a stop at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre for a master class with Carpenter at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4 sponsored by the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers program, Celebrity Series of Boston and the Harvard University Organ Society. I exchanged emails with Carpenter about the ITO, his advice to young artists and his mission to change the organ as we know it.

You really command a unique musical language from the organ. How did you see an opportunity to make something new and unique in the organ, a particularly old and traditional instrument?
I want to reboot the organ for listeners everywhere. Let’s sidestep the morass of the organ’s image of guilt and death; let’s circumvent the worsening academicism and heightening insularity of much of the organ community; and let’s show the miracle of the instrument to the world all over again, and to a world listening to and more interested in more kinds of music than ever in history. My Sony album If You Could Read My Mind, just recorded on the International Touring Organ, gives an idea of my first offerings toward this aim.

What was the impetus for creating the International Touring Organ?
The International Touring Organ expands our idea of what an organ is because it brings together many types of organ building in a single instrument in a way which a pipe organ could never do. Important for me as a secular artist, it gives me an instrument truly capable of film scoring, jazz and new music, as well as the complete organ repertoire Read more…

A conversation with motion artist Reggie Wilson

February 27th, 2015 No comments

2014_Spring_ReggieWilson_MasterClass_613x463When he and I spoke recently, venerated choreographer Reggie Wilson opened my eyes to new and challenging ways to think about dance and movement. Wilson is at the helm of the post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dance company Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, and will offer a master class in modern dance tonight (February 27) at the Harvard Dance Center. (The class is at capacity and is not open to the public.) An edited version of our conversation about Wilson’s research, choreography, and style of dance follows.

What is post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dance?
What do you think it means?

I don’t know.
It means that it’s several words strung together, and you probably have to experience it to understand what that means. It’s dance – best to be experienced and not read. That’s the basic concept behind it, but actually and literally each one of those words are ideas that do relate to ideas that happen in the movement and in the research for the movement and in the structuring of the movement. At the same time it’s using the ideas that it’s being drawn from, and if you actually put them together as words they don’t necessarily mean something that’s immediately comprehensible.

What does research for a dance piece entail?
It can vary from choreographer to choreographer, and for me it can vary from dance work to dance work. So the research might be actual field research, going to work with a community to understand who they are – like ethnographic research. The research can take place in any number of ways and can also include work that’s actually done in the studio, trying to find new ways of moving or trying to perfect old ways of moving. Read more…