from Collage 2006, a violoncello quartet’s take on Metallica’s Creeping Death
Nancy Uffner with Joe SchlenkeTrumpet Solo from Collage 2006Gustav Meier who started it allColin Campbell on Drums from Collage 2009Valerie Obgonnaya, Collage 2004Musical Theatre Students Perform Sondheim at Collage 2006Jazz Combo from Collage 2008Bassoon Quartet, Collage 2002Flute, Oboe and Harpsichord Trio, Collage 2006

The Making of Collage

Ah, Collage, that annual concert, the third Saturday in January, that oasis of warmth and light and sound, and—perhaps most importantly—excitement, right there in the dreary depths of winter.

For two 40-minute acts, uninterrupted by applause, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance trots out its best and brightest, in short performances, back to back, from a darkened stage where only the featured performers are illuminated. It is often the only time during the year when students from all disciplines at the School have a chance to see and hear what the others are doing.

It really is a thrilling ride, as anyone who has attended can attest, and there’s something for everyone:  jazz, choral, symphony orchestra and band, dance, theatre, piano, voice, musical theatre, percussion, you name it. And from the seats at Hill, the audience enjoys a seamless flow of perfectly polished, perfectly amplified, dramatically lit performances, a “vibrant, unpredictable organism that just keeps going,” as Paul Rardin, a six-year veteran of Collage—four as a student, two as faculty artistic coordinator—has called it.

Magic, right?

But even magicians have to practice their sleight of hand. And even the Wizard of Oz has someone behind the curtain. It’s what goes on leading up the concert that makes the magic happen.

Collage was the brainchild of Gustav Meier, director of the University Symphony Orchestra, now emeritus. During a trip to Belgium in 1976, he witnessed a performance that stopped him dead in his tracks. A quartet presented short pieces, in rapid succession—the opening note of one overlapping the final note of the preceding—with nary a pause.

Later, back in Ann Arbor, Meier said, “We were torn from the 20th century to the 17th century to the 19th and then back to the 15th. We were all just stunned. It never occurred to me that such a programming technique could happen.”

And work.

He decided to find out. The first Collage Concert was mounted in 1977, Meier’s first year at Michigan. It was a modest affair by today’s standards, but still it was a huge success and quickly became a permanent part of the School’s annual repertoire. Today there are alumni from thirty-two classes who have the Collage experience stored in their memory banks.

Yet each year, freshmen arrive, experiencing the phenomenon that is Collage for the first time (see essay by Patrick Carter, below). By sophomore year, though, they know what it is. And most of them want passionately to be a part of it.

Each October, a call for submissions goes out to the entire student body at SMTD, graduate and undergraduate. “We encourage applicants to submit audition recordings of distinctive repertoire that show the performers at their highest level of musicianship and expressiveness,” the call sheet says. The conducting faculty, who head up Collage, appoint one of their number as artistic coordinator. The AC watches—sometimes with alarm—as CDs begin to pile up in his or her faculty mail slot as the submission deadline nears.

In November, the conducting faculty listens to each and every audition tape. By then, they have determined what the anchor pieces for the concert will be:  what the University Symphony Band will perform in the first half, what the University Symphony Orchestra will play in the second, what the big choral number will be.

“Excellence. Confidence. Beauty.” That’s what the screening committee is looking for, says Rardin, choral conducting faculty member and artistic coordinator for Collages 2007 and 2008. “Are we hearing fabulous music played well? Because if it’s a B or B+ piece—unless there’s a real hook to it or it’s an absolutely terrific contrast from what came before—it will fall flat.”

Soon after this winnowing process, the announcement goes out:  who’s in and who’s out. Somewhere between 65% and 70% will not make the cut, for a variety of reasons. “We strive for maximum contrast in any number of realms,” Rardin says: “Loud to soft; high to low; staccato and angry to legato and tender; fast to slow. The more jarring or interesting the juxtaposition the better, although there has to be a thread through the pieces.”

And just who is it behind the curtain making this all happen? “Collage is David Aderente,” says Nancy Uffner, theatre & drama faculty member who has stage-managed the concert since 1996. “He is the primary organizational instrument. There are some 400-plus performers involved in this concert, and David has thought about what every single person needs.”

Over the years, Aderente, managing director of ensembles since 1979 and production manager of Collage ever since, has been refining the process. Once the artistic coordinator gets the ball rolling in the early fall, Aderente picks it up mid-fall and runs with it. He puts together a finely tuned, moment-by-moment schedule, taking into consideration myriad details.

One of his most vital functions is to look over the proposed line-up for the concert, to red-flag any hot spots. What won’t work where, and why? Together, he and the artistic coordinator refine the line-up even further, making sure each of the chosen pieces works artistically and logistically.

“Later in the fall, all the stake holders meet as a group,” Rardin says:  “the artistic coordinator, production manager, lighting, stage manager, front of house, box office, sound. This is where we find out things we might not have considered:  no, you can’t have the Hill Lobby open unless you do X, Y, or Z; you can’t have the students coming in that way; there’s going to be a brass quintet in the mezzanine, we need to rope off some seats.”

Then, in that third week in January, Hill Auditorium is booked from Wednesday through the Saturday night show. Putting it all together goes something like this:

Wednesday

All heavy equipment is loaded into Hill, under Aderente’s watchful eye:  the sound system, percussion instruments, harps, and pianos. Choral risers and stairs, already at Hill, are brought out and installed. “We put on the extensions and start plotting out the stage,” Aderente says, “and Roger sets up his sound system.”

That would be Roger Arnett, the School’s sound engineer. Once dubbed the “patron saint of sound” by dance professor Peter Sparling, Arnett has been on the staff since 1978 and is equally vital to the success of Collage.

“During set-up, David and I have to figure out the technology,” Arnett says, “what has to be in place at the beginning of the show or at intermission. Once the concert starts, it’s dark, and you can’t go around plugging things in.”

Not all of the acts require sound reinforcement, but some do, typically musical theatre, jazz, dance. “My overall goal is to make the amplified world match the acoustic world,” Arnett says. “If no one is aware of any sound work, then I’ve done my job.”

Wednesday is also when stage manager Uffner arrives on the scene. “I show up for spiking,” she says. “Once we get everyone to agree on the physical set up, we tape out the floor. Ensemble directors have some say in the set-up, but mostly it’s going to go the way David says it is, because it has to. He has already done a tremendous amount of homework.”

Thursday

Mark Berg, lighting designer, comes on board. Lighting is a key element in any concert, but is absolutely central to Collage. Once Berg has things the way he wants them, he and Uffner program the boards with all of the cues for the concert.

The night of Collage, Uffner will be in the booth at the back of the balcony, calling cues for the lights. With her each year is a conducting graduate student and one in training, being prepped for next year’s Collage, closely following the score.

Also in the booth is the spot operator, Ellen Katz for the past several years. “I’m calling the follow spot, up and out,” Uffner says. “Ellen is reinforcing area light or picking out an individual from a group. Mark is backstage with the light board, watching from a video monitor. Roger’s in the house, mixing sound, serving as our audience eyes and ears.”

In the midst of all this, Aderente schedules “open times” when rehearsals can take place in and around technical set-up. Arnett sets audio levels and practices with each set of performers who need sound reinforcement, laying the groundwork for a smooth dress rehearsal on Friday.

Friday

In the morning, the big instruments—two pianos and sometimes a harpsichord—are tuned by Bob Grijalva, director of piano technology. The whole process will be repeated Saturday morning. Then comes tech rehearsal, the preamble to dress that night.

“All of the representatives, including the conductors and heads of ensembles, come in,” Uffner says. “We show them their light, their positioning, equipment positioning. Then we practice transitions.”

“We do the endings and beginnings of all the pieces to work out the logistics of getting everybody on and off the stage or from one part of the stage to another,” Aderente explains. “During the featured performance, there is almost always some set-up going on—in almost total darkness—and hopefully without a sound. It’s a challenge to keep the audience focused on the performers in the spotlight, unaware of the changes going on elsewhere on the stage. It’s the riveting nature of each performance”—the magician’s legerdemain—“that makes this possible.”

“The paramount thing about Collage,” says Uffner, “is the seamless flow between pieces. We are coordinating lighting, sound, musicians, crossover personnel, movement on and off the stage, all to start and stop at a precise second. And it’s really really hard to do. In fact—and you can quote me on this—it’s a small miracle.”

Friday night is dress rehearsal, a full run-through in real time. This is the opportunity to practice the trickier transitions and work out any rough spots. “That rehearsal runs from 7:00 to 10:00. Everyone is very respectful of the students’ time,” Uffner says. “They’re only there when they are needed. Coming from the theatre world, I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Saturday

Most of the technical personnel show up at 5:00 for the 8:00 concert. “I come in and turn things back on,” Arnett says. “Once you turn equipment off, you have to go through a testing procedure to make sure speakers and microphones are still working.”

Saturday Night

Doors open at 7:30 and the hall fills up quickly as waves of spectators find their seats. Arnett makes final sound adjustments to accommodate what is now a full house. Student performers arrive; those who aren’t performing in the first half take a seat in the audience. Once everyone is settled in and the hour has arrived, a disembodied voice reminds people to turn off their cell phones and to hold applause until the end of the half. The hall goes black. A spot finds the conductor who gives the downbeat.

The magic begins.

Paul Rardin, who played in the jazz band as a student, will never forget his first Collage. “The most memorable moment for me,” he says, “was the end of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s churning, dissonant, rising in pitch. The orchestra’s going from a controlled train to an out-of-control train and then pop—right at the point when the audience is on the edge of their seats—you hear a banjo going doing dicka doing dicka doing. When I heard these folks rip into Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I thought:  I love this place. That we have a conservatory faculty who said yes, this piece not only belongs in this show but it belongs right after Stravinsky, is genius. I will just never forget it as long as I live.”

Post Concert

Saturday night, while sated and happy customers are driving home or nipping into a downtown Ann Arbor restaurant for a late-night bite, everything that was done during the preceding days happens in reverse. Only faster. “Saturday night we strike,” says Arnett. “The crews can get us out of there pretty fast and we have students helping.”

Then everyone goes home to rest.

Collage 2010 will be held on January 16 at Hill Auditorium.
Visit www.music.umich.edu/performances for ticket information.

 

First Impressions

By Patrick Carter

PJ Carter

It was my freshman year, and I was coming back to school after the holiday break. The first few weeks back in Ann Arbor were tough. I was starting all new classes, I still didn’t feel like I’d found the right niche of friends, and I missed my family. Michigan started second semester weeks before most other universities, and my older sister and all of my friends from home were still enjoying their break in Maryland.

On one of my first days back, I found myself sitting in my first rehearsal with the University Symphony Orchestra. Despite my excitement at being in a new ensemble, I was still miserable and homesick. To make matters worse, I would not be able to disappear into the woodwind section:  I was playing principal oboe. Gathering all my strength, I warmed up, looked over my music, and made sure I had the perfect reed (if such a thing exists).

Probably one of the most stressful things about being an oboe player is giving the tuning note to the rest of the orchestra. Any number of things could go wrong. I could come in incredibly flat and have the whole orchestra listen as I slide the note up to pitch. I might miss the first attack and noticeably struggle and crackle my way into the A. Or, as was likely this particular morning, I could be so nervous that the pitch would shake uncontrollably and no one would be able to receive an adequate note for tuning.

Or worse. As I gave the tuning A, I felt something trickle down my upper lip. My nose was bleeding. “You play the A!” I hissed at the second oboist. Amidst snickers, a stable tuning note emerged from the oboe section and the rehearsal moved forward.

Things did not get much better from there. We were rehearsing for some bizarre concert that involved students from all over the school, and the orchestra would be playing only excerpts. We ran through our part, and soon into the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, most of the orchestra dropped out. I found myself one of the only people playing. My lack of preparation, combined with my frazzled nerves from the nosebleed and everything else in my life at that time made for a disastrous solo.

These were the beginnings of my first Collage Concert experience, and fortunately things got better in the following weeks. The night of the concert, I joined my colleagues in the balcony at Hill to watch the first half; the USO would play only during the second half. As I sat and chatted with members of the woodwind section, the entire hall went black. What in the world was going on? Had there been some kind of electrical failure? I soon realized this was part of the concert. The lights above the stage rose as a row of eight musicians from the Symphony Band played the resolute opening notes of Mozart’s c minor Serenade.

The next forty minutes were a blur:  exciting transitions from one snippet of music to the next. This was unlike any concert I had ever witnessed. A solo clarinetist wowed the audience with his outstanding technique and delicious tone. A trio of dancers presented their physical interpretation of an electrifying soundtrack booming from somewhere deep in the hall. A small jazz ensemble had the entire audience moving to its dynamic and precise delivery of improvisational tunes.

Before I knew it, I was on the stage myself, feeling as if the dancers I had just seen were doing jumping jacks in my stomach. Gazing up into the massive auditorium, there was not an empty seat in the house; hundreds of faces stared down at the stage. Then the entire space went black again.

When the lights came back up, I was part of the energized performances on stage. I felt connected to each and every note played, each and every word spoken. When it came time for my solos, I was so swept up in the splendor of the moment that I almost forgot to be nervous. My first Collage experience ended up warming a particularly chilly spot in my first Michigan winter, and has continued to excite and inspire me ever since.

 

Patrick Carter is a senior oboe performance major in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, studying with Nancy Ambrose King. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he worked this past summer as an intern in the school’s Office of Development and External Relations.