Hill Auditorium’s stage gets a hefty annual workout with the aptly named Collage Concert by the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. For thirty-nine years this student showcase has been riveting audiences with a crazy quilt of diverse performances whose origins span centuries. This year’s concert takes place January 14 at Hill.
At any given moment of last year’s concert, at least three groups of performers populated Hill’s pretty arched stage. Over two hours, musical numbers ranged from fully orchestrated Strauss, to a John Williams movie theme, to dancing to M.I.A., around the bend to a swing number by Thad Jones, and full circle to Bach, among many others. The nineteen groups that performed included eight virtuoso violinists, three sets of dancers, Shakespearean prose speakers, a steel drum quartet, and two solo pianists. When the lights lowered, marking the beginning of the concert, there were so many musicians on stage that a portion of the Jazz Ensemble jutted out on a temporary extension of stage left.
The clever lighting focused on whichever group was performing, with just-finished players scurrying out in the cover of darkness and the next bunch moving in.
Rapid changes were executed flawlessly, the audience occasionally gasping in delight. As solo pianist Sam Saunders pounded the last note of an energetic up-and-down keyboard piece he composed, the Jazz Ensemble belted out the first note of Chick Corea’s “You’re Everything.” And the lighting switched just as quickly.
“We have one or two students per group or a conductor of a large ensemble do each transition several times to coordinate the lights and transitions,” says Ellen Rowe, a U-M jazz professor and Collage Concert production director. One would have thought it took months to reach that level of seamless musical joy.
The two largest groups–the Symphony Band and the University Symphony Orchestra–each performed four pieces ranging from movie soundtracks to Wagner and Ravel classics. The University Symphony Orchestra’s tight, self-assured student players, with outstanding kettle drums and xylophone, outshone the immature Symphony Band, the only disappointment of the night.
During the second half of the concert, the 112 members that make up both the Chamber Choir and the University Choir stood on risers five levels high, bumping up against the wall of organ pipes at the back of Hill’s stage. It was stunning. Their tuxedos and flowing black evening gowns, punctuated by open songbooks, complemented the sometimes staccato and sometimes soaring voices.
Dean Aaron Dworkin, in his first year in the department’s lead role, strode out onto the stage in his stylish no-lapel jacket and proudly announced that it was unusual for a major research institution to have such an extensive music department and then stated–to much applause–“But this is Michigan!”