If I’d known what I was going to see, I might not have believed it. Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, played by the Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland School of Music, with choreography. But not choreography for dancers. Choreography for the musicians, who danced the piece as they played it (from memory), rising from the floor, flowing across it, falling, sometimes spinning, rarely grouped by sections, moving in ways organized visually, and also musically, with movements that began with the students improvising them.

If someone had told me that was going to happen, I might have been skeptical. I might have thought the students wouldn’t move well, that — dancing as they played — they wouldn’t play well, with phrasing, balance, and ensemble getting sloppy. I might have thought the choreography might be silly, that the music wouldn’t be well served.

But that would have meant I didn’t know Liz Lerman, who choreographed the show, or James Ross, who — as conductor of the orchestra, and the one in charge of the orchestral program at the school — was overall in charge. These are special people. I’ve known them both for several years. Both can work miracles. Liz, quite beyond her touch as a choreographer (or, really, as one part of it), can give the gift of trust. Jim, too. They create a space in which people trust themselves, and each other.

Orchestral players will be impressed, I think, with one way I’ve seen Liz do this. At a gathering of orchestras (held as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Orchestra Forum), she created trust enough to make a clarinetist from a major orchestra feel safe as she played a difficult Stravinsky solo, with musicians from her own and other orchestras sitting around her in a circle, offering critiques. I hardely have to say that such a thing would simply never happen — couldn’t happen — at any orchestra I know.

Which gives me at least some idea of how the Maryland musicians might have felt safe dancing. They were beautiful. No one would have taken them for dancers, but that didn’t matter. Dressed in what they’d wear offstage, on any normal day, they moved with easy grace and full commitment. At first, they might not quite have been in sync, musically, or not fully so. By the end, their bond, in music, was just magical.

They had a conductor, as I noticed halfway through. Not Jim, but one of his students, whose conducting movements had evolved into a flowing dance. And soon I also noticed that when in the music we’d hear in special prominence some instrument, we’d also see that instrument, but never crudely highlighted. Instead, the flow of movement would show us for a moment where the player was, the horn in this subsiding phrase, or all the principal winds who have the melody when the final section of the piece begins. (The excerpts are from the old Charles Munch recording, with the Boston Symphony.)

Toward the end, a potent blonde percussionist came into view, spinning from the middle-front to middle-back of the stage. By now I thought I’d caught on to Liz’s sense of music, and I thought, “This is the percussionist who’ll play the crotales at the very end.”

And so she was. As the music ebbed away, the musicians subsided to the floor, the conductor last. At the very end, he lay there, in what felt to me like erotic peace, with the flutes who play the final chord standing over him, tenderly on guard. Or soothing him. Or teasing him. A lovely image, deeply true to Debussy.

I was hardly the only person there who felt that this was something unforgettable. Something deeply true, deeply resonant. We talk, all too easily, I fear, about innovation, creativity, and other things we value, things that, to be truthful, we see less often than we say the words. But here we had it, creativity in its purest, deepest form, bringing something that — speaking only for myself — I could never dream I’d ever see.

Something, I can believe, that the students will remember all their lives.

And what was the second part of the program, the piece the orchestra (now seated normally) played after intermission? The Mahler Second Symphony, one of the longest, most difficult, deepest, most transcendent pieces in the repertory. So on this Friday evening, Jim Ross and his students aimed for the stars.

The first attack — the tremolo on an urgent G, from the strings — was arresting, so powerful it almost shocked me, even though of course (because I know the piece), I knew that it was coming. And throughout there were arresting moments, melting, soaring, urgent, tender playing from the strings (hard sometimes to believe that they were students). String tremolos that hovered over an abyss of silence. (They were so urgent — but so hushed — that I looked up to see exactly who was playing, and was amazed because I barely saw any bows in motion.)

Heroic moments from the winds and brass. Bass notes black as night. Percussion cataclysms. And the University of Maryland Concert Choir, beautifully trained by the school’s choral conductor (and choral conducting teacher) Edward Maclary, that sang its rapt and quiet music with the certainty and awe you’d dream of hearing.

These may have been tired students. They’d been busy. The Voice/Opera Division of the music school had put on an extraordinary festival, seven concerts of Dominick Argento’s non-operatic vocal music, some of which uses instruments, and two of his operas. Plus the students have their lessons, practicing, and, I’m sure, chamber music concerts.

That’s a lot. Jim Ross didn’t compromise. He could, I’m sure, have moved the Mahler forward briskly, which would have made it shorter, and (I’d guess) more comfortable to play. But that can’t be how he feels the piece. He took it slowly, weightily. With long, courageous pauses, in which (when they succeeded) the air all but seemed to tremble.

Much as I love him, I can’t say it fully worked. It was, perhaps, too weighty for a student orchestra. Or for an orchestra of students who’d had so much else to do. (Including the rapturous Debussy adventure.) Or for a student orchestra playing the piece in public for the first time. On another night, it might have held together powerfully.

Which leaves me breathless, thinking of the scope — and risk — of what Jim did. Along with Liz. And thinking, too, that it’s a shame the concert couldn’t be repeated. And wasn’t better publicized. It might be, of course, that you wouldn’t want publicity, when you take students deep into such new terrain. You don’t want them feeling that they’re on display, that the reputation of the school might rest on them, that anything should matter more than the art of what they’re doing.

But what happened should be better known. I’m not the only one who felt that the Debussy performance was — nationally — one of the most impressive and important musical events this year. Not just student musical events; one of the most important musical events of any kind. At a time when so much of the classical music world is looking to renew itself — and when especially conservatories and orchestras (or many of them) want to find new ways of doing things, ways that make musicians (whether students or professionals) more open, freer, readier to follow their artistic lights, and their curiosity — this concert should be better known.

As does the school. Readers of my blog may wonder why I talk about the University of Maryland so much, may even think I’m stroking them because they made me artist in residence for two years, may think — because I’m unabashed in saying that I’m close to Jim Ross, and that I know Liz Lerman — that I’m simply praising friends.

But it’s really just the opposite. I’m friends with these people, and I’ve worked with them, because we’ve had a meeting of our minds and hearts. That doesn’t mean that they agree with me on everything. And in fact when I was there, the relationship wasn’t always easy.

But I’ve seen that exceptional, unique things can happen there. I won’t try to rate the school of music as a whole, anymore than I’d tried to rate Juilliard, where I’ve taught for 17 years. Nor will I try to say that what goes on in Maryland is unique. I hope it’s not; I hope that special things that I don’t know about are happening in schools throughout the world.

What I will say is that a school that, more or less at the same time, puts on the concert I’ve described, plus the huge Argento festival (I went to both the operas, Postcard from Morocco and Miss Havisham’s Fire, and was struck, as I’ve been in the past, by the originality and honesty and deeply grounded craft in Argento’s music; he’s something like an American Britten, writing tonal music that doesn’t linger in the past, and embraces freely the bite and edge of atonality), plus a week of concerts, lectures, and masterclasses featuring Morton Subotnick, the school’s composer in residence — a school that does these three things more or less at once is doing something special. And should be known and praised for it.

Footnote: I’d blogged previously about the larger audience the UMD orchestra concerts had been getting, because (as I was told) the people there were acting on ideas I’d tried to seed. The house for Debussy and Mahler looked just about full. And many of the people there were young.

Of course there may have been Liz Lerman fans. And friends of people in the large, terrific chorus. It’s a fact of life at music schools that vocal students (and their friends and families) may not go to instrumental concerts (and, of course, vice versa). Add so many singers to the orchestra, and you’re sure to sell more tickets.

But I did see one small proof that a new audience was showing up. At intermission I wanted something to drink. Ahead of me on line were two guys of student age (though clearly over 21), who wanted shots of whisky. And then asked if they could bring their drinks into the concept hall.

If that doesn’t show that at least a few new people are coming to these concerts, I don’t know what would.

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  1. says

    I always thought that athletic pep bands had something to teach symphony orchestras with their dancing brass sections and marching musicians. This is a great step towards greater showmanship and artistic expression.

    • says

      Thanks, Eric. It really was that good. They did make a video, and will post it somewhere after it’s edited. I’ll let everyone know when it’s available.

  2. says

    Sounds absolutely beautiful!!!! I love Debussy, and can envision this as perfect dance music. I have often listened to various Classical numbers that weren’t written with the idea as being for dance, but to me, felt there should be dancing. Maybe this is something that could help revive more interest in Classical music. People who say they have difficulty relating to Classical music might better connect with it if they could “see” it. And like what may have been true here, get larger audiences because of there being music and dance…. many also would come out of curiosity, and like here find someting new and beautiful! This could So wish I had seen this, but I am here in Colorado.

  3. Barli Nugent says

    I LOVE this. And I adore Liz Lerman’s work. I brought her into Juilliard’s ChamberFest some years ago. It’s time for a return visit.

      • sue heineman says

        Hi Barli (former colleague in Aspen Quintet); Hi Greg, whom I haven’t met…

        glad you and Anne liked this… as a faculty member at UMD and an NSO member I was both thrilled to read the positive reviews and a little defensive about your comments on professional orchestras. I wonder why Anne thought a pro orchestra couldn’t do this, or why you think we couldn’t sit in a circle taking critiques? It’s not at all uncommon to seek help from our colleagues, when we have auditions or recitals coming up, are trying instruments or reeds, or simply want help with an orchestral passage we’re playing that week.

        • says

          Hi, Sue,

          Anne and I saw Rita Shapiro at the concert (the executive director of the NSO, for those who don’t know). I’ll admit to teasing her a little about the NSO doing something like the Debussy. If you and others in the NSO think you’d like to do it — and that Anne and I are wrong in thinking it’s unlikely in a professional orchestra — why not go to Rita and suggest it? Liz lives in Baltimore, not far away, and I’m sure she’d be happy to work with you.

          And, more generally, if this is something I’m wrong about, then I’m thrilled.

          But for whatever it’s worth, I’ve worked extensively with professional orchestras, and known many orchestra musicians. I think most people I’ve worked with would be surprised, to say the least, if a professional orchestra did what the UMD students did with the Debussy.

          As for critiques, the session I saw Liz do took place as part of the Orchestra Forum, a multi-year funding program established by the Andrew M. Mellon foundation. Liz and I were both Fellows of that program, which meant that we attended semi-annual meetings of the more than a dozen orchestras involved, and could do anything we wanted there — attend any discussion, say anything we wanted. Liz’s session happened after much discussion — in which, as far as I know, orchestral musicians took part — about how difficult critiques were in orchestras. It was an experiment to see if the difficulty could be surmounted. Certainly the more than 20 participants all thought they were doing something new.

          I hear you when you say you may ask each other for help, and I know that’s true. But I’ve never heard of orchestras institutionalizing anything like this, so that critiques have a regular home, and take place constantly. Certainly you don’t critique your conductors! Not the same issue, I know, but related, I think. Of course, maybe the NSO has a wonderfully warm and supportive internal culture, of the kind that few other orchestras have. But I remember a conversation I had years ago as a journalist, with the newly appointed associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. Her first appearance with the orchestra happened to be on a night Bill Preucil wasn’t there, so this woman made her Cleveland Orchestra debut as concermistress. She told me how surprised — and of course thrilled — she was when members of the orchestra came to her before the concert, encouraged her, told her she could count on them. Her experience up to then, and everything she’d heard about professional orchestras, had led her to expect much less support. Or even hostility.

          That’s just one of the experiences I’ve had that reinforces the belief that organized, regular critiques would be difficult. I once, along with Bruce Coppock (who at the time ran the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra) organized a discussion for orchestra musicians about why they don’t smile at concerts while they play. The initial answers were a storm front of negativity. Which did change, after much discussion, but again it would be hard for me to believe that the musicians in that discussion would have been eager to critique each other, with warmth and full support. Or, for that matter, to dance. If their attitude about playing concerts was that there was nothing to smile about…well, we can put two and two together, I think. The musicians, by the way, came from a variety of big and medium-sized orchestras, and had attended the discussion because they were interested in the subject. Which, I think, means that they were at least willing to _consider_ smiling. But, again, they initially were dead against such a thing. What would have been the reaction of orchestra musicians who hadn’t chosen to discuss this?

          Sue, I don’t mean to attack orchestra musicians here. Not at all — because, as I said, I’ve known many, and have the greatest warmth and respect for many I’ve met. But that orchestra culture hasn’t, in the US, been totally positive is pretty well known, and confirmed by formal studies. So, with full respect for what you’ve said here, I don’t think my or Anne’s comments were especially surprising.

  4. Mike Hale says

    This sounds fabulous. Any idea if they will be performing it again, or was it a one-time thing?

  5. Liza Figueroa Kravinsky says

    Actually, some modern ensembles have already done a bit of choreography with musicians, although probably not the level that Liz Lerman took it to. In the following video, you will see examples starting at 1:29 into the video.

    • says

      Liza, I’m not seeing a link to the video, in your comment. Would love to watch it! Would you comment again, and give us the link?