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Lady Gaga. Oprah. Harvard.

March 1st, 2012 No comments

Lady Gaga at Harvard PHOTO: Matthew Small

It could have been Madison Square Garden. The stacked, wood seats are filled with a shouting, buzzing audience. When the event eventually commences, those on stage will have to pause every few moments to accommodate the rowdy group’s spontaneous and stupendous applause. And when pop-icon and international superstar, Lady Gaga, emerges from the wings of the theater, the sheer decibel level is stupendous.

But raucous greetings aside, we aren’t in Madison Square Garden. Instead, the stage at Sanders Theatre is soberly outfitted with a few tufted armchairs and two small tables, backed with three additional seats apiece. A rectangular poster mounted to the far wall touts the debut of the Born This Way Foundation in minimalist font.

The effect of these moves is pointed and convincing. Today is not about Lady Gaga: The Superstar. Today, even in foot-high heels and a floor-length body-skimming gown, Gaga is low on pomp and circumstance. She has arrived at Harvard to utilize her extraordinary following of virtually millions of “Little Monsters” to one end. Over the course of the hour-and-a-half long event, she’ll repeat it many times. She wants to change the world, and she doesn’t think it’s going to be that difficult to do so.

The foundation is founded on three pillars: safety, skills and opportunities. In a safe environment, endowed with the skills to love and respect, opportunities for today’s youth, says Gaga, will be endless. And Lady Gaga’s hope is that the Born This Way Foundation will spark a major shift on the cultural landscape—igniting a movement on par with Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation. She wants a systemic shift in how we love, learn and live with each other, and she isn’t afraid to come out and say so. She has high expectations. But it helps to have famous friends, and Gaga’s enlisted an army of some of the world’s most powerful to launch her movement.

First, President Drew Faust takes the stage to introduce the legendary Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleeen Sebelius, and, of course, Gaga herself. Oprah appears and eloquently frames the event for her rapt audience. “Every human comes with the divine right to be himself or herself,” she says. And as we hover on the precipice of this should-be-could-be global undertaking, we have to keep in mind a unified purpose. We are coming together to “fulfill the highest expression of ourselves as human beings.”

After, Oprah welcomes the woman of the hour. The two engage in a brief interview to discuss the aims and responsibilities of this foundation. Gaga thanks the Harvard Graduate School of Education for its support profusely, and humbly name checks her partners in this enormous effort, especially her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, with whom she founded BTWF.

When Oprah asks how she managed to recruit Harvard to join in her effort, Gaga replies with a smile. “Well they have phones,” she says. “I called them!” Lady Gaga also answers questions posed by a panel that includes Deepak Chopra and that is moderated by Harvard Law School professor, Charles J. Ogletree. A few audience member also provide some crowd-sourced inquires for the singer.

And although Gaga claims that the woman she is in the context of the Foundation is utterly apart from the woman that she is on stage, the artist in her is not so easily suppressed. Both she and Oprah speak of the necessity of creative expression. And remind the crowd that even the world’s most famous artists and celebrities seek validation in the work that they do. “Even Beyoncé, in all her Beyoncé-ness,” says Oprah, “asks, ‘Was that okay? Did I do okay?’ We all want to know that what we do and what we say and who we are matters.”

Later, with a surprisingly throaty laugh, Gaga acknowledges how “utopian” her view of love, acceptance, and bravery really is. But a powerful message is “like a good pop hook. It picks you up and makes you want to move.”

Maestro in the making

January 26th, 2011 No comments

Yuga Cohler '11 conducts Harvard's Bach Society Orchestra.

Yuga Cohler ’11, a computer science concentrator in Eliot House, is the 43rd music director of Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra (commonly referred to as “BachSoc”), which was established in 1954 to study and perform works for chamber orchestra. He also serves as the assistant conductor of the World Civic Orchestra, with which he made his Carnegie Hall Isaac Stern Auditorium debut this past summer, performing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

On February 1, Cohler was scheduled to moderate a public conversation with Hugh Wolff ’75, who served as BachSoc’s music director as an undergraduate; that event has been cancelled due to inclement weather. Wolff, the director of orchestras at New England Conservatory, is an acclaimed conductor whose interests span Baroque performance practice and the championing of new works. Harvard Arts Beat asked Cohler about BachSoc’s history and what it takes to be a maestro leading an ensemble of his student peers.

How do you think the Bach Society Orchestra has changed since Hugh Wolff led it back in the mid-70s?

It’s difficult to say if anything really has. The repertoire has expanded a bit—we now play more Romantic music (Brahms’ Second Symphony in our upcoming concert)—and I imagine we are a slightly bigger orchestra now; however, I doubt that the spirit of BachSoc has changed at all. We are, and probably always have been, characterized by the entrepreneurial drive and collaborative effort that comes from being an entirely student-run orchestra.

BachSoc’s name suggests that it focuses mainly on baroque and classical music. How is the ensemble’s repertory relevant to contemporary audiences and musical tastes?

Our name is somewhat of a misnomer. Although in the beginning, BachSoc focused primarily on Baroque repertoire and pieces by Bach, it has since evolved into a chamber orchestra which performs everything from Beethoven to Stravinsky. For better or for worse, our season this year includes not a single piece by Bach. As for relating to contemporary audiences, we generally try to include at least one modern piece per season—this year it was Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England. In addition, we hold a composition competition annually for undergraduate student composers.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned as conductor of BachSoc?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from music directing BachSoc, it’s that conducting is tremendously difficult. Aside from the obvious musical requisites (a good ear, solid sense of rhythm), a conductor—especially a student one—needs to strike the right balance between humility and charisma in order to be effective. It is a conductor’s job to lead an orchestra and point out the flaws and shortcomings in its playing; on the other hand, such direction can easily become abusive and overbearing. Aside from this, the music director is the face of the orchestra, in terms of marketing, publicity and so on. In this sense, the most important things I’ve learned from BachSoc have probably been more interpersonal than musical, more practical than theoretical.

Many people bemoan the fact that the audience for classical music is graying and dying out. What can orchestras and record labels do to bring in younger audiences, and keep them interested and engaged?

First, to some extent this is a misconception: There was never really a time when “classical” music could compete with the grandeur of today’s popular music. In Beethoven’s time, a concert was considered a success when 300 or so people came; now, the Boston Symphony gathers 2,000 people regularly. In this sense, I don’t worry about classical music “graying and dying out” any more than I worry about the same thing happening to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

At the same time, I do believe there are significant opportunities for classical musicians to benefit from the more popular forms of music. As someone (I forget who) once said, “There are only two types of music—good and bad.” As such, I see nothing wrong with the prospect of mixing and matching different types of music—as the Boston Symphony has done, for instance, with James Taylor at Tanglewood—provided, of course, that the music is good and the program coherent. Put another way: If someone like Lady Gaga were to offer to sing some sort of pop “concerto” on a BachSoc concert which concluded with a Beethoven symphony, I would say yes.

Due to inclement weather, “A Conversation with Hugh Wolff” presented by the OFA Learning From Performers program, scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, February 1, has been cancelled. At 8 p.m. Friday, February 4 in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, Wolff will conduct the New England Conservatory Philharmonia in a program featuring works by Ravel,
Shostakovich and
Stravinsky. Information: 617.496.2222 (TTY 617.495.1642) or visit the Harvard Box Office website.

“Chicago” taps the razzle dazzle of Club Oberon

December 3rd, 2010 No comments

This week, HRDC‘s Lady Gaga-inspired rendition of the classic musical “Chicago“ arrives at Cambridge’s Club Oberon, making it the first all-student production to run at the theater.

Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” is the story of the Cook County Jail women’s block and its murderous inhabitants, including Roxie and Velma, who battle for media attention in prison. It is also a tale of love, fame and murder.

I spoke with Ryan Halprin ‘12, who both choreographed the musical and plays one of its lead roles, Roxie’s dim-witted husband Amos.

How big of a role has the fact that yours is the first all-student show at Oberon played in the way you approach the show both as an actor and choreographer?

Ryan Halprin '12

The fact that we are pioneers is both daunting and exciting. I’ve done my best to visit the space frequently and plan ahead as much as possible to allow space for revision. I think there is definitely a pressure to bring something new to the show, because the space is so unique and warrants special treatment. As an actor, my approach has been slightly more traditional: Amos is a pretty classical character, and because we are aiming to maintain the intent of the original production, I’m not doing anything crazy in that regard.

What are some benefits of the space?

While the stage itself is small, we are using a lot of playing spaces. In fact, in addition to the stage, there are really five other separate areas where performers will play throughout the show. We are also constructing a runway that juts out of the stage to create a fashion show-like atmosphere. Moreover, Oberon has one of the more sophisticated lighting systems in the area with a total of 11 moving lights, and thus we have the capability of making the show feel like a nightclub.

Any challenges?

The sound is tricky, because the space is pretty intimate, and so keeping the band at a level that allows the actors to be heard poses a challenge. Also, there isn’t much backstage space, but that’s not a big deal. We are really excited about being in the space!

How do students like the space? Do they feel like it’s a more “professional” venue than usual?

The thing is, we aren’t actually allowed to be in the space much until our opening day because there are shows happening up until the day we open. The cast hasn’t been in the space much, but we are all excited about it. We will all be getting up close and personal with the audience, in a non-obnoxious way, so the whole experience will be a blast. The fact that we have one day of tech (as opposed to two weeks) really does make the show seem like a more professional endeavor. Also, our light and sound are being done professionally.

What makes a show like “Chicago” suited to this venue?

A lot of “Chicago” is about giving into temptation, and even more of it is about what we will do with fame. The first scene actually takes place in a nightclub during a show, so the half-club/half-theater vibe supports this meta-theatric atmosphere. Similarly, the crazy lighting capabilities allow us to follow the actors like cameras, so the entire building is one big paparazzi. In a nutshell, we can preserve the sleazy, naughty feel of the show and just add modern elements on top of it.

Do you feel like the show/choreography is different at this venue than if you did it at one of the more usual venues?

Yes. The lack of one big stage and the implementation of multiple playing spaces gives way to a much more interactive, dynamic show that would be harder to achieve in a more traditional space.

Finally, do you have any favorite moments from rehearsal?

The entire rehearsal process has been a blast—we have such a diverse cast with people who are from all around Cambridge. I think my favorite moments have been when a cast member accidentally comes up with some movement that is brilliant, and we get to include it in the show. That’s just one example of how much teamwork has gone into this show.

The HRDC’s production of “Chicago” runs for four performances Monday, December 6th through Wednesday, December 8th.  What few tickets remain are available here.

Hey Alice: We’re all mad here

September 27th, 2010 No comments

Lady Gaga is taking over the world. This is a fact. Case in point: at least two Harvard sponsored productions this year are modern takes on classics that are heavily inspired by the woman this writer thinks is the best thing to happen to mainstream pop in, like, forever.

Alice vs. Wonderland. Photo: Anastasia Korotich

One of these productions is the Gaga-inspired Chicago, premiering December 6 at Club Oberon and apparently featuring—yes!—a runway that comes out of the stage for a fashion show.

The other is American Repertory Theater’s Alice vs. Wonderland adapted by Brendan Shea and running through Oct. 9 at the Loeb Drama Center.

A large sign outside the door to the theater warned, “We’re all mad here,” and that was spot-on. Consider:

(yes, we are)

  • Tweedledee and Tweedledum had one of  my favorite exchanges of the play. Dee, as she’s called, contends that she is “the most famous twin,” to which Dum (she prefers to be called Francesca) replies, “Well, I’m the indie cool one.”
  • The play is inspired by Gaga, but the show features Radiohead’s “Creep” multiple times. No complaints here.
  • On a related note, the one Lady Gaga song the company does do is the Queen of Hearts’ rendition of “Pokerface.”
  • There are six—six—actresses playing Alice. Each Alice represents a facet of teenage life.

Alice vs. Wonderland. Photo: Anastasia Korotich

The costumes were clearly where the Gaga influence played a major role. The Queen of Hearts looks like a taller, more evil version of Gaga herself, dressed in black leather and a deep red dress with a billowing tail that she frequently thwacks with her, uh, thwacking instrument. She is a dominatrix, and this role comes complete with an almost entirely nude (save for very small black underwear and a collar and bow tie) manservant. The character is reminiscent of the eight-minute odyssey that is the video for Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro.”

The various Alices wear brightly colored leggings, t-shirts and hoodies, plus a backpack with the heroine’s ever-so-trusty Macbook, and, of course, a skateboard.

By far my favorite costume of the night was the Mad Hatter’s, who rocks in his purple t-shirt, purple pinstriped blazer, lime green sneakers, a pair of entirely-too-skimpy lime green spandex short-shorts, a black top hat and a zebra-print scarf.

These costumes map personalities, and these were the personalities that drive the story. But the plot takes a backseat to the visual and emotional aspects of the play. There are the same wacky encounters with the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts as in the original, but this version of the story is more psychological—cerebral, even. The Alices are teenagers: They are me, and they are you (well, some of you), and they are searching for identities. The repeated use of “Creep” speaks to this: perhaps we’re all creeps; maybe we’re all weirdos; we’re certainly all mad. And that’s OK.

One of the Alices, after having spent time in Wonderland, comments: “You guys are crazy!”

“You mean like we’re hilarious and fun, right?” replies the Hatter.

Yes. That.