Choreographer Liz Lerman brings U-Md. orchestra to its feet in ‘Appalachian Spring’


The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performing "Appalachian Spring." (Kirsten Poulsen-House/Kirsten Poulsen-House)

We often say music is moving, without really thinking about what the word means. Our actual experience of classical music tends to be still. The musicians may sway a bit when they play, and we in the audience may tap our toes, but there’s a sense that such movements are involuntary outbursts in a climate in which they are meant to be suppressed.

On Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Center, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra offered a literally moving performance. Playing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” from memory, the musicians stood, and walked, and swayed, and danced, and even lifted each other and their instruments. From the very first notes, when the players offered quiet arpeggiated awakening phrases from one side of the stage, gently bathed in quiet blue light, the performance felt powerfully, viscerally emotional. Freeing all the latent creative forces in those usually still players brought a powerful sense of release. I finally realized, in a kind of epiphany, that this is what “moving” really meant.

The University of Maryland orchestra program, under James Ross, has given a special focus to exploring new avenues of performance. This collaboration was the orchestra’s second in this direction with the MacArthur Award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman, two years after a memorable “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Lerman specializes in working with non-dancers, and in both “Faun” and “Spring,” she collaborated with the orchestra, tapping into their energies rather than imposing her vision on them. The Copland project was more ambitious than the Debussy: a longer piece, with more players and tauter rhythms that are even harder to execute when musicians are moving around the stage without a conductor.

There was, in fact, a conductor on the stage: a graduate student named Enrico Lopez-Yanez. But he functioned as a dancer opposite the venerable Martha Wittman, a longtime Lerman collaborator with many decades of dance experience, who in this piece took on the role of the iconic creative instigator, inciting the musicians to movement and channeling the ballet’s commissioner, Martha Graham. As her counterpart, and the spirit of her dance, Lopez-Yanez jumped, and rolled, and moved with a dancer’s fluidity; but he didn’t conduct.

As a result, the performance was a little rougher than the Debussy — you might not mistake it, with your eyes closed, for a professional recording. But it was no less powerful. Freeing players from an orchestra’s faceless mass, having them move — one executing footwork while he fiddled, another exuberantly wielding his double bass over his head — creates an entirely different awareness of orchestra members as individuals. The performance becomes a democratic collaboration between a large group of people who have very different things to say, and who are participating even when they’re not actually playing, perhaps in a bit of square dance, or running a gantlet of other players with their instruments over their heads.

The relationship to the audience becomes more dynamic as well. Once the players become active participants, the audience does, too, almost by default. I defy anyone to sit and watch an entire orchestra move toward him, in full cry, and not have a reaction. At the end of the piece, the players walked to the foot of the stage and and laid their instruments down, one by one, in a kind of surrender to the silence, or an offering to their listeners. The gesture felt like an act of tribute, and the audience responded with a roar of applause.

This performance is not in any sense student work: It is not an amateur preparation of something that seasoned professionals are doing better. It represents work by some artists at the top of their game, like Lerman, and nobody else is doing anything like it.

After such an experience, it’s hard to return to the status quo of a traditional orchestral concert. Ross, the orchestra program’s visionary leader, solved this problem by offering the students two supremely challenging pieces that fully engaged them as players: Henri Dutilleux’s “Metaboles,” written for the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in 1964, and Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of themes from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” written for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner in 1942. Having mastered the unconventional, the players showed their mastery of exceptionally hard orchestral technique, while Ross led them with an energy that brightened the colors of the Dutilleux and brought out the swing through Russell Bennett’s complex orchestrations of Gershwin’s greatest hits. No professional orchestra today could offer the Copland performance these players did, because they don’t have the rehearsal time; and some would come up short by comparison in the other two pieces, simply because they’re not as good.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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