The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland; May 4, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Liz Lerman's "Appalachian Spring" Photo © Nguyen Nguyen

Liz Lerman’s “Appalachian Spring”
Photo © Nguyen Nguyen

I just spent a lovely late Sunday afternoon listening to live music, which I don’t do often enough. I’m a dance critic, after all, so I tend to see dance whenever I can. If not dance, then I run off to see theater or film. Music, unfortunately, frequently takes a back seat. I was talked into trekking out to the University of Maryland to see the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra perform “Appalachian Spring,” however, due to the promise of movement. When one couples Copland’s music with dance, one naturally thinks of Martha Graham. However, this was not Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” It was Aaron Copland’s soaring music accompanied by dance with a different Martha in a lead role. The performers, save Martha Wittman, a dancer and a long-time collaborator with choreographer Liz Lerman, were music students at the university. If you’re not getting the picture, let me explain further. The musicians were dancing as they were playing “Appalachian Spring.” Not swaying a little bit in their chairs, dancing.

I admit that when I go to listen to an orchestra, I’m easily distracted. Primed to put music with movement, I usually find myself producing dances in my mind, or watching intently the hands of someone on a string instrument. I hunger for the accompaniment of bodies to sound. In this version of “Appalachian Spring,” my brain didn’t have to seek out movement, the students gave it to me. Wow, did they ever!

I want to start at the end, when the audience zoomed to its feet in an unrestrained cacophony of appreciation. Thanks to Liz Lerman and choreographic collaborator Vincent E. Thomas, who happens to have an MFA in dance and a BME in music, and to the vision of music director James Ross, the students achieved in “Appalachian Spring” what any performer hopes to achieve – the creation of pure magic.  They moved me to tears because they so courageously embraced the challenge of playing music while moving. The result was transcendent. The older gentleman next to me turned and said, in awe, “Have you ever seen anything like that?” I assured him I had not. “Me neither,” he smiled widely, “and I’ve been around a long time.” Excitement permeated the room. I think we all felt that we had witnessed something revolutionary and very special.

My musician friend beside me was nearly apoplectic. The irreverence of dancing about with precious instruments shook her hard. She insisted she would never do many of the things with her instrument that the choreography called for, like placing her instrument on the ground at the foot of the stage or swinging it in the air. Did the students perform with cheap, borrowed instruments, she wondered. She asked, and they did not.

I loved Lerman’s “Appalachian Spring” all the more precisely because of the surprising amount of risk-taking. I loved the students all the more for being willing to try things clearly out of their comfort zones. A man sitting in front of me said he had seen a rehearsal about a week earlier, and the students were reportedly struggling then with directions and timing. They seemed to hesitate, he observed. Not so during the actual performance. I witnessed a few glitches, but overall, the students moved remarkably smoothly, and the story they told as they played did not shrink but grew with emotion. They imparted that heady feeling of being lost in the music.

In the beginning, Martha Wittman appeared behind a small desk, and the much younger Enrico Lopez-Yanez, a master’s degree student in orchestral conducting, stood across the stage from her, also in front of a small desk. The two traded gestures as conversation. Their debates sometimes raged. I don’t know for sure what this narrative was about, but I interpreted the pair as a recalcitrant student and an imploring teacher, sharing ideas and disagreeing about various approaches. The rest of the musicians wore shades of blue and khaki. Many wore no shoes. Everyone danced. The cellists moved with their instruments cleverly harnessed to their bodies, and even the pianist got out from behind the piano.

Lerman’s choreography demanded boldness.Timidity would not fly.So daring were the steps that the students and instruments took that my companion for the concert, a classically trained violinist, cringed and sucked in air multiple times. The dancers/musicians held their instruments aloft at times, even the heavy ones (a horizontal bass sailed over heads). They swung around and around in circles, instruments and limbs coming within inches of each other. Arms reached into the air as often as bows. One barefoot young man who played the flute leaped through the air and kicked his heels high. A bassoon player, with some assistance, climbed atop another student’s back and played from that perch. Not all of the movement was big, however. Students gently placed a hand on another’s shoulder, or sat in a crumple, heads down. Many moments were extraordinarily beautiful, and the lighting design complemented the rising and falling moods of the music. Amazingly, the sound quality did not seem to suffer at all, despite the chaos of dancing musicians. The swelling of the music was almost like a separate body emerging from the stage.

For those who are curious, the remaining works on the program were Henri Dutilleaux’s “Metaboles,” and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture,” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. Nothing could top “Appalachian Spring,” though. I’ve seen Graham’s “Appalachian Spring,” and admired it, but this one grabbed my heart because it was the very people making the music whose movement pulled me into their world. I felt the score and the students’ energy in my bones. Hopefully, these students will take the joy of dance with them as they progress in their careers. I cannot help but think the experience of dancing will make them better musicians.