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2010-10-28

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University Orchestra's spooky symphony arrives for Halloween

Max Collins/Daily
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By Joe Cadagin, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 24, 2010

Orchestras are notorious for coming across as stuffy, elitist and pompous. But come Halloween, the University’s orchestras let their hair down and have a good time.

For more than 30 years, undergraduate and graduate student musicians in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance have come together to put on an annual Halloween Concert of engaging — and sometimes spooky — orchestral music.

The orchestra for the Halloween concert will be made up of a combination of musicians from the University Symphony and the University Philharmonia Orchestras, and will be conducted by graduate students from the orchestral conducting department.

Joining Segal are seven other students from the conducting studio of MT&D professor Kenneth Kiesler, who also serves as Director of University Orchestras. Each conducting student directs the enormous combined orchestra in a piece of his or her choosing.

“This is our first showing, if you will,” said Yaniv Segal, a doctoral student in orchestral conducting who will direct a piece in this year’s Halloween Concert. “We conduct various ensembles, but this is the first (official University) event of the year that we get to conduct.”

Yet the Halloween Concert is a somewhat unorthodox “first showing,” considering that the entire orchestra, the conductors and most of the audience are dressed in costumes.

“There was a conductor who wore a chicken suit one time,” said senior violin major Amy Cave, who will serve as concertmaster for this year’s Halloween Concert. “The violas always do a costume as a section, so (they) were all crayons one year. One year the basses were all 'Tetris' pieces.”

For the newer conducting students, leading an orchestra of goblins, ghosts and ghouls can be a somewhat daunting, and even frightening, experience.

“A few years ago, I remember coming up to conduct and right in front of me sitting in the second violins was this kid with white face paint and blood and gore,” Segal said.

“It was so scary to be up there and have this devilish ghoul staring at me … It’s intimidating and it’s hard to focus,” he added.

The conductors themselves choose costumes that fit the theme of their pieces. Last year, Warren Puffer Jones, a doctoral student in orchestral conducting, cross-dressed as a Wagnerian soprano — complete with a horned helmet and a large metal breastplate — to conduct "The Ride of the Valkyries.”

“I’ve heard stories about the ‘greatest hits’ of the Halloween Concert,” said Jones. “Our teacher, Kenneth Kiesler, always talks about when someone dressed up as a bat to do the overture to (the operetta) Die Fledermaus, which is the German word for ‘bat.’ They somehow suspended him upside-down, and he conducted upside-down.”

The concert is tied together by a series of madcap sketches performed and written by the conducting students. In fact, the graduate students organize the entire concert themselves — everything from selecting the music to finding costumes.

“We had a very fun time at the costume shop, and we found some great things,” said Matthew Dell, a first-year graduate student in orchestral conducting. “There’s a lot of variety, a lot of wacky stuff.”

This year’s program includes a wide range of favorite pieces from the classical repertoire, including Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets, Igor Stravinsky’s Finale from his ballet “The Firebird” and Richard Strauss’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” from his opera “Salome.” These pieces will be conducted by Elliot Moore, Eiki Isomura and Dell, respectively.

The concert also includes a few Halloween-related pieces, such as American composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s “Hobgoblin” from Symphonic Sketches (to be conducted by Segal) and March of the Little Goblins, a piece by Michigan alum Adam Glaser.

"It starts with just a few players on stage, and then one by one the sections file in," Segal said. "So at the beginning of the concert you get to see all the costumes of the (musicians) as they walk on stage.”

With its accessible program and entertaining format, the Halloween Concert is a favorite event among students and community members.

“There are people in town who might never come to one of the other Symphony or Philharmonia concerts, but they come to the Halloween concert, and they get to hear a great orchestra play great orchestral music,” Jones said. “The reason they enjoy it is because it’s funny and there are fun costumes, but they also enjoy the music, and that’s worthwhile.”

The concerts are also a great opportunity for kids to get acquainted with classical music in a friendly atmosphere where they can dress up in their Halloween costumes.

“I think it’s a big family event, and there are people who have come for years to the (Halloween Concert),” Segal said. “At the end, the conducting students run out to the front of the house and hand out candy to the kids for them to get started on their trick-or-treating. It’s really fun to see them there. They’re usually laughing, smiling and giggling, and they have a real blast.”

This year’s concert is particularly special because it happens to fall on the same day as Halloween. Segal hopes that this will draw an extra-large crowd. He also pointed out that since the concert is in the afternoon, it won’t interfere with youngsters’ trick-or-treating.

For the musicians, who are used to a more serious black-tie style of concert, the Halloween Concert is a much-appreciated change. Concertmaster Cave mentioned that having kids in the audience also helps to lighten the mood.

“Orchestra concerts can really seem stuffy and old," Cave said. "And having kids there laughing and chatting — even during the music — it’s refreshing.”


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