My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Impressions from the stage: University of Maryland's choreographed production of "Appalachian Spring"

About a month ago I saw a post on a young friend's Facebook page about participating in an event at the University of Maryland that immediately grabbed my attention.  A violinist and a dancer attending the school, Lillian Cannon, performed in a memorized, conductor-less, and here's the clincher, choreographed version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.  After reading the brief but ecstatic post on Cannon's page as well as Anne Midgette's wonderful article for the Washington Post  I was eager to see it for myself.  Only a few weeks after the performance the YouTube video was up and I watched, moved the entire time by the intimacy of the rendition but also by the incredible bravery of the students who challenged themselves in so many ways in order to present something unique and powerful.

If you haven't yet watched it, here it is.  I would recommend watching it before reading the rest of this post.

I was so excited to know someone who had participated I decided that I wanted to find out more from her about what the experience was like for the students.  Lillian graciously accepted my request to answer some questions so that we could all soak in the experience and perhaps gain courage and ideas from this project.  Many thanks to her for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully.

ES:  Were you at the University’s first performance like this where they performed a choreographed version of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun?” or had you watched it prior to working on “Appalachian Spring?”   If you did, what were your thoughts, reservations, reactions? 

LC: UMSO performed the choreographed Debussy the year before I was there so I never saw the live performance but I watched the video on YouTube before beginning Appalachian Spring. I thought it was beautifully done and they sounded very good but (maybe because I’m biased) but I thought Appalachian Spring was at a whole other level than the Debussy. I think we took many more risks because the Debussy was such a success and both James Ross and Liz Lerman thought our orchestra was capable of doing so. Appalachian Spring was also almost twice as long as Debussy which was a project all on its own.

ES: What was the process for getting involved with this particular production?  Was it required participation or did you audition, sign up, etc.?  If you had a choice about whether or not to be involved, why did you choose to be a part of it? 
LC:  If you watch the video of Appalachian Spring, you will probably notice that it is not a full orchestra performing it. Our orchestra was split up for this past semester, with half of us working on Appalachian Spring and the other half working with opera students to perform “Die Fledermaus “. We came back together as a whole to perform the second half of the spring concert. Back in August at the beginning of the school year, we got our orchestra audition music, and with that, we got a survey sheet that asked if we would be willing to participate in a Copland music/movement collaboration and we could either put our interest in for the project or decline. I chose to put my interest in for it because it was something I have never done before and it was extremely out of my playing comfort zone.

ES:  How many months were spent preparing for this event?   What was the process like for putting it together?   How much of the choreography was given to you?  Did the orchestra members have a say in what you did? 

LC: We started rehearsals almost right after we got back from winter break, so probably the first week of February. The first rehearsals were definitely the hardest because we were looking at the music for the first time and it was just all very overwhelming for everyone I think. I think what helped a lot was having a chamber group of 13 people (4 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 1 double bass, a flute, clarinet, bassoon, and pianist) who were basically the leaders of this project. They met for extra rehearsals every week and began learning and memorizing the music before the rest of us did (in the video, they are the first and last players to play). This group helped guide the rest of us and kind of grounded the whole process I think. I know one of the biggest problems we had as a group (that the chamber group definitely helped with), was the amount of times we had to switch time signatures in that piece. Switching meters conductor-less was not easy to say the least. It forced us all to listen and feel the music much more than simply memorizing it. Most of the choreography was a collaboration of the idea Liz Lerman and our conductor, James Ross had envisioned, with the some of the ideas from the orchestra members thrown in. I think a lot of our ideas though, were more geared towards restrictions that we had with some of the movements and also having to play our instruments. A lot of the original ideas for this piece were modified so that we could also still play while doing them. 

ES: I am so impressed that this was done all by memory.  Were you given guidance as to how to go about memorizing such a large work?  Did you feel that having the choreography helped or hindered with the process of memorizing?

LC: At the first rehearsal we all had together, Professor Ross gave us all a little guide on tips for memorizing such a big work. It included things such as turning in a circle while you had your music in front of you, closing your eyes at more familiar sections, etc. At every rehearsal, we also had a huge projector up with the score so that we could get out of our own parts more and look at the score for guidance (I personally don’t think the projected score helped much though). We basically memorized the entire piece in sections, starting with the easier ones such as “Simple Gifts”. We would kind of start by memorizing one section, learning the section before or after it, then trying to put the two together until we had the whole thing memorized. I think at first, the choreography hindered the process of memorizing the piece, because we were so focused on learning that particular choreography, that we couldn’t remember the notes. Once we started getting real chunks of things choreographed and pieced together is when it began aiding the memorization process.

ES: Since you also had the choreography to deal with in this performance did you find performing a different experience than a typical orchestra or solo performance?   If so, how was it different?

LC: This performance was so beyond any other orchestra or solo playing experience. We were trying to tell a story with this piece and it not only had to come through in our music, but also our movement. It became so much more breathtaking to me when we all got out of our heads and committed to getting our story across to an audience. Ms. Lerman and Professor Ross wanted a lot of our emotion to come from the inside, so I think what made this piece so amazing is the fact that the audience wasn’t seeing the same emotions and the same story from every person performing. We were all performing from an emotion that was personal to us.

ES: Since you have had a lot of experience dancing yourself, do you think that helped you in this situation? 

LC:  Definitely. Memorizing choreography is something I’ve been doing my whole life so that part came so easily to me. It gave me more time to work on memorizing the music (which was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be). I think a lot of people struggled because memorizing a large chunk of choreography in a short amount of time is something they’ve never had to do before, let alone play music at the same time.

ES:  What was the dynamic of the orchestra as a whole as a result of being a part of such a unique performance?  Do you think you were more eager to promote others to come to the event?  Why or why not?

LC:  I think at first we were all really apprehensive about the whole thing, and I know none of us thought this was actually all going to come together (we were still having these doubts in April). At the same time, I think we were able to connect much more as an orchestra because we were forced to interact with every person on stage, whether they played the same instrument as you or not. You couldn’t rely on the rest of your section for guidance or to help you out on a section that maybe you weren’t as comfortable with because chances are, you were not standing around any of them for the majority of the performance. It took me a long time to really feel like this was going to be a worthwhile performance for people to see, but when it finally came together, I was so excited to be able to share it with an audience because I knew it was going to be beautiful.

ES:  What did you enjoy most about the experience?

LC:  My favorite part of the whole thing was seeing the audience at the very end when we were all laying our instruments down at the front of the stage as our “final offering”. I had always thought that was such a neat idea but I had no idea it was going to make such an impact on people. Seeing people moved to tears is really a powerful moment.

ES:  What did you not like as much or what did you struggle with, if anything?

LC:  Like I said before, I really did not enjoy the first month or so of rehearsals. We didn’t have it memorized enough to start learning solid choreography so there wasn’t much we could really do in terms of bringing this piece to life. I think it was pretty disorganized for a while because we were all trying to figure out how we were going to pull the entire thing off.

ES:  Would you do an event like this again?  Why or why not?

LC:  I would do it again in a heartbeat. It turned out to be such a neat experience and being able to pull off a performance like that is unforgettable. I think we were all able to connect with the music on a much deeper level and play together as a group better than we ever have.


  1. I'm commenting late here - hopefully less likely to make anyone mad! First of all, as a UMD music alum, with one niece who graduated in music a few years back and another there now, I am immensely proud to see what they're doing here. The Debussy and Copland performances are innovative in the best way possible - nothing gimmick-y or superficial, as too often happens when people try to do things differently. I've shown the Debussy video (usually complete) in classes at least 4-5 times as it says so much more than I could say. I also really appreciated this interview as it answered many questions I had.

    When my niece who's at UMD now (though she ended up being in the opera orchestra instead of this one) posted the Appalachian Spring video on my Facebook wall, I wrote the following:

    "Thanks. I had seen this, but hadn't watched it all, and still haven't, though I've now sampled most of it. It is very moving and an amazing thing. In some ways, I think I prefer the Debussy as pure artistry/conception, though this one is more obviously moving. Maybe that's my issue, is this one's almost trying too hard and not letting the music lead as much, though this is probably partly my own bias as someone who's not really into dance. (Also, Debussy's music is, by design, more nature-oriented and less personal, whereas this music is much more about human-ness. Personally, I don't really like people that much.)

    My least favorite thing about the Debussy had been the interpretive dancing of the conductor, which often seemed out of place and to draw focus away from the music. This took that much further with the two non-playing dancers drawing much more focus, which just doesn't do it for me as much. Of course, this is such a bigger piece, I can imagine how it was desirable to take some burden off the players in this way. Still, for me, all the moments I really love in this have to do with the musicians moving and being the music. I'd love to see the conductor function more as a conductor (which would help musically in many spots) and to let his "dance moves" flow out of his musical function, which is what's mostly happening with the players (though there are often more spots here than in the Debussy where non-playing players are the featured visual; there are quite a few spots in the Copland where the most important player isn't really spotlighted visually). I understand that much can be done without a conductor, and it's bold of Ross to let that idea take flight, but if the choreographer can work in the mechanics of bass-playing, I'm not sure why the standard mechanics of conducting are almost entirely eliminated.

    Probably more than you wanted to know! But, I do love that they're doing this and I think it's brilliant in so many ways. I remember worrying when I saw the Debussy that people would see this as a model for many to follow, and I'm not convinced that's a great idea. The best idea would be to do something equally brilliant and creative, but perhaps very different...."

    So, that's my two cents! I'm mainly wondering if others have had the same reaction as I did, finding that the Debussy was more successful as musical/artistic experience, but I may be all alone....

    Many thanks to Lillian and Erica!

    1. Michael,
      It's great to hear your thoughts about both the Debussy and the Copland. I took a while to reply to your comment because I wanted to watch both again with your observations in mind.

      I really, really love the Copland but I'm wondering if that's partly because it is one of my favorite compositions and with Debussy I typically like to listen to it as an aural experience. It was a different experience for me to also be taking in the visual at the same time. I also love the concept behind the Copland and appreciate that they didn't go for a strictly stereotypical interpretation of it. The story they had to tell in this version made me want to watch it several times to pick up on the meaning they were conveying through the choreography. I also like watching dance so I didn't mind that there were two dancers. It added variety and texture.

      I'll be curious to see what they decide to next if they do another one of these presentations and I agree with you that they've brought in creativity in a very tasteful, non-gimicky way. I appreciate that.

      Thanks for your two cents, Michael!


  2. That's really cool! I bet the players all got to know that piece much, much better than if they had performed it as usual. (Also interesting contraption for the cellists so they could move while playing.) UMSO has come a long way since I was there ...

    1. Harriet,
      I didn't know you went to UMSO! It's good that you think they've come a long way. I believe they've been very intentional about trying new things the past few years and I think that's terrific! I know I was excited when I found out this young violinist had been accepted into the school and was planning on attending. I wanted to hear about what they're doing from the inside.

      Hope all is well with you - it's great to hear from you again!