‘Les Illuminations’ at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at U of MD by Tiffany Draut

A concert program that consists of Benjamin Britten and Gustav Mahler could be considered just another classical concert in a town filled with classical music.  Yet when that program includes a “multimedia spectacle” by Doug Fitch paired with the Britten piece, and the Mahler piece is the notorious Symphony No. 7, you know you are in for no run-of-the-mill concert. And indeed, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra more than delivered on the potential of the concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on March 9, 2013.

While the UMD Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James Ross, played Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations superbly, with emotion and drama, the true star of the show were the projections that surrounded the tenor and enhanced the music.

University of MD Symphony. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith for the Performing Arts.
University of MD Symphony. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith for the Performing Arts.

The orchestra was on the stage, with two screens behind and raised so that the bottom of the screens was just above the heads of the audience. As the orchestra began playing, Tenor Gran Wilson walked up the stairs to the platform in between the two screens, such that he was a part of the projections—the illuminations. As Wilson sang the song cycle, the screens were lit up with various projections and images to complement and enrich the music: the part titled “Being Beauteous,” for example, talks about how out of the snow “rises a Beautiful Being” and later talks about several colors of life deepening and dancing. As Wilson sang each line, the projections reflected the imagery—projected snow, out of which a figure rose, and then during the “colors of life” passage, various colors danced and flickered across the screens, around and surrounding Wilson. The projections were in a sense interactive as well. For example, during one of the passages Wilson tried to grab various falling letters, or during another passage, Wilson reached for a flying bird.

Designed and directed by Doug Fitch, with projections by Tim McLoraine, it made for truly an exciting and dynamic presentation: to not only hear the music but to see it as well. It added a new dimension to what one may consider the “typical” classical music concert, and made it more thought-provoking and vibrant, as the projections give a new perspective to the music and allowed for different interpretations of Britten’s piece. During the “Marine” passage, for example, the projections of the water—the amount, the speed of the water, etc, helped the audience to understand the meaning of the lyrics, despite their being in French, yet allowed for various interpretations as to why exactly the projections of the water started out slow, then grew to a flood of water, then back to small individual fountains. While Wilson’s voice seemed harsh and at times even a bit strained, overall it was a solid presentation of an intriguing piece. The audience seemed to agree, with many jumping to their feet yelling “bravo” at the end.

The concert continued with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. About 80 minutes long, the Symphony No. 7 is a massively difficult, complicated piece that requires skill and stamina. While the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra is made up of young students still maturing as musicians (which at times becomes apparent), by and large they were up to the challenge the symphony presents. While the symphony uses various different styles and includes some unusual instruments (including mandolin, among others), the emotion and passion of the students was more than evident. At times there seemed to be a certain hesitancy in their playing as if they were coming in half a moment late; while in the horn section especially the notes were not quite as clear or crisp as they could be. The orchestra was at its best during the various lush, romantic parts, with a dynamic intensity that made the listening experience very entertaining.

While the symphony was very long, the eager attitude of the orchestra combined with their skill, made for an interesting night. The University of Maryland consistently puts on high-quality, innovative performances, and tonight’s performance was no exception.

University of MD Symphony. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith for the Performing Arts.
University of MD Symphony. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith for the Performing Arts.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Les Illuminations performed for one night only on Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 8 pm at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center—3800 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard) at University of Maryland in College Park, MD. For upcoming events, please check their calendar.


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