Category: Arts and Entertainment

MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

 

“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.

Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.

Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.

“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.

“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”

The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.

Stephanie Rager, CC ‘19, with her student, Sophia

Stephanie Rager, SEAS ‘19, with her student, Sophia.

First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”

Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.  

Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.

Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.

These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.

“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.

Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.

“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.

With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.

An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.

“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.

Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.

However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.

These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.

How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.

In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.

Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.

In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.

Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.

“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.

“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”

 

 

Image courtesy of Meghna Gorrela, CC’20

Dear Evan Hansen, TIME magazine’s “#1 New Musical on Broadway,” is at once a sentimental coming-of-age story and a powerful deliberation of social media and mental health. The musical follows the tumultuous life of a high-schooler named Evan Hansen, played by General Studies student Ben Platt, who must navigate his social anxiety in the painful aftermath of a fellow student’s death.

The Lion had the privilege to ask two Dear Evan Hansen stars about their theatrical lives and their thoughts on the musical. Here is what Kristolyn Lloyd (who plays Alana) and Mike Faist (who plays Connor) had to say:

Question: Many of Columbia’s Drama and Theatre Arts majors dream to make it to Broadway someday. Given that you studied drama at another top university (Carnegie Mellon), before becoming a Broadway star, what advice can you personally offer to these particular students?

Lloyd: One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that being an artist is more than just knowing every play that’s ever been written. You can know the whole history of theater and still be lacking as an artist. In terms of people who I really admire and their successes, part of what I really admire about them is that they’re human beings with so much life experience. I took a year off of acting in 2009 and did missionary work in Southeast Asia, and afterward my agent said to me, “This was the best decision you’ve ever made as an artist, to go do missionary work.” One thing I always encourage young people who want to go into theater to do is, after high school, go take a year off before going to conservatory doing aid work somewhere, or travelling the world, or just doing something big and scary and adventurous so you can learn more about who you are. That’s going to influence you as an artist.

Question: According to your bio on the musical’s website, your theatrical career actually began offstage, when, at the young age of 17, you sold Broadway tickets on the streets of Manhattan to make a living. What kept you going through those harder times, and allowed you to make it to where you are now?

Faist: I had friends in similar shoes similar shoes as me, who were also scrambling trying to make ends meet. I wasn’t even auditioning; I was too nervous going through whatever I decided I was going through at the time to really put myself out there. But, I had friends who were, and luckily they dragged me places kicking and screaming. They kept saying, “Just shut up and do it!” Those people took me to those auditions and motivated me, and I now feel like you just need to book that first thing. You need to get a confidence boost, essentially. I booked a dinner theater in Springboro, Ohio — it was nothing, and I got paid like $250 a week, but I was a professional performer and that gave me enough of a confidence boost at that age to say, “Well, if I can do this, why can’t I do that?” This led to more regional non-union theaters, which led to me eventually having enough confidence to go in and audition for a Broadway show.

Question: What is it like to be a person of color on Broadway, in a space where people of your background have traditionally faced underrepresentation? How has your identity shaped and affected your experience?

Lloyd: What a huge question. It’s a very convoluted answer because, you know, I can speak from being a black person, but it’s going to be different for someone who is asian, and different for someone who is middle eastern. But as a black woman I’ve found that there are things that you’re going to come head-to-head with that are frustrating. I’ve found that with African American women in theatre, especially in musical theater, our biggest struggle is being seen outside of character roles, or the antagonist. What does it look like to have a black woman on stage who’s a hero? We see that musicals like The Great Comet and Hamilton are allowing women of color to be seen as heroines. The social stance that theater is going to be able to take to communities– and the world– is saying that women of color can be heroes, and that they don’t always have to be the sidekicks. And I’ve found that as an artist it’s only made me more interested in the types of writers, playwrights, and composers who are interested in stories like that, who are interested in complex characters like that. It has inspired me as a writer as well.

Question: What is your favorite scene involving your respective character, and what did you personally add to the scene to make it “uniquely yours?”

Faist: Luckily, I’ve been with the show since the very beginning stages of it, so I’ve been with the show for 3 years. The creative team gave me the maps for these characters, and as writers got more specific about what they wanted, I was able to get more specific — so we were all feeding off of one another. So all of my character is mine, in a way, and that’s something I can say that you do when you’re originating a role or a character: you end up tricking yourself into thinking “I am this person.” And that’s when unique, cool things come alive — when you are able to fool yourself and say “what if?” But, my fave scene is the computer lab scene at the very beginning, before Connor passes away. You get to see Connor and Evan in two parallels and you actually see the similarities more than the differences.

Question: What do you think is the most important lesson we, as students and also world citizens, can learn from the respective character you played?

Faist: When I was doing research for the role, I looked through this website called livethroughthis.org. Basically, it’s a series of interviews with people who are suicide attemptees. They’re all in recovery, and they talk about it. The biggest thing they talk about is stigma, and how they’re portrayed and looked at by society, and how they’re shamed for having those thoughts, and how they’re diminished and marginalized in a way that’s in some ways different — but also not — from others who feel marginalized. What I’ve noticed in how people look at Connor is that they immediately put him in a box as well, because they see a guy wearing all black, and he says “fuck you” a lot, so they think he must be a bad guy or he must be a bully — or he shoves the main character so he must be a bully. But that’s not the case at all. He’s a kid who’s really hurting, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: we’re all similar and we’re all closer than I think we realize.

Question: Part of the significance of Dear Evan Hansen is its candidness about the issue of mental health. Currently, around the nation and especially on college campuses, many people want to see a greater effort to destigmatize mental illnesses. Do you have any suggestions about how we can collectively achieve this goal?

Faist: The first thing you can do is start talking about it. The minute you start regularly talking about bipolar disorder or suicidal thoughts or depression, it becomes something that everyone can relate to or listen to or empathize with, and it becomes less of a taboo issue. That’s the biggest thing: a lot of these ppl who’ve attempted suicide want to talk about it because they don’t want other people who might be going through what they went thought to not feel like they’re able to talk about it — because that’s when bad things happen. The minute you start talking about it, you start to see connections with other people. Everyone can empathize with feeling sad or lonely from time to time; that’s just a part of life and some people just feel too deeply. And that’s okay, but we just need to talk about it. That’s really where you need to start: having conversations and dialogue.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Columbia community?

Faist: Go check out livethroughthis.org.

Lloyd: Come see Dear Evan Hansen! Be a part of the conversation, be a part of the theater community, and see stuff that’s Off-Broadway and stuff that’s on Broadway. That’s where art and ideals are cultivated: within the theater. Let’s see how we can take these wonderful pieces that are being shown in New York City and get them to places where people don’t get to see these kinds of controversial pieces of art!


For tickets and more information about Dear Evan Hansen, visit dearevanhansen.com.

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

With an oddly coherent one-two punch of homey Canadian sensibility and electrifying Broadway wit, Come From Away has come to town. Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical has taken the musical world by a storm, wooing New Yorkers and out-of-towners like Justin Trudeau alike.

The New York Times dubs the musical “the catharsis we need in this American moment,” and it is not wrong, for Come From Away manages to lift us out of our modern political turmoil and transport us back to a time of astounding unity — albeit one that was extremely sobering. It takes place during the week after the September 11th attacks, in a remote Canadian town called Gander where 38 airplanes had to land unexpectedly after U.S. airspace shut down. A humanitarian crisis arises at the outset of the show: aboard these planes sit 7,000 people — a number equal to the town’s entire population — all of whom desperately need food, water, medication, and shelter. The musical captures a miraculous display of humanity in which the townspeople all come together, abandoning their personal responsibilities to spend an entire week tirelessly feeding, housing, clothing, and entertaining the passengers. As the small-town locals intermingle with these “Come-From-Awayers” from more than a hundred different countries, we lament that it takes such sadness to make people come together and celebrate life.

The cast of "Come From Away", Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2016

Particularly noteworthy is the musical’s ability to highlight the ways in which people of different identities experience their time in Gander. A gay couple, for example, initially feels the need to hide any trace of romance from potentially conservative locals and fellow visitors, but soon enough they find that everyone around them accepts them as they are. One of the pilots involved was actually the first-ever female captain in American history, and she spends the time in Gander ruminating about the last time she was not allowed to fly: when the all-male captains of her youth told her she was not fit for the skies. A Muslim chef experiences the most persistent intolerance, however, as some members of the group associate his religion with the terrorist attack and therefore do not want him to help out with the food preparation despite his expertise. These individual stories of hardship, and sometimes triumph, form a mosaic of humankind that could not stand out more from — or yet fit better into — the backdrop of Gander.

The space itself was a reflection of this mosaic superimposed upon rurality. For the musical, Gerald Schoenfeld Theater transformed into small-town Newfoundland, with thickets of evergreens bracketing the stage like the dense forest that frames rural Gander. On the stage itself, a rotating surface showcases each character from multiple angles, amplifying their individuality even during moments of solemn stillness.

The music served as the driving force behind this recurring paradigm of unification through individuality. The cast shone as a single entity in numbers such as “Welcome To The Rock,” while standouts like “Me And The Sky” sculpted the emphatically different characters in all of their joy, ambition, and desolation.

A grippingly beautiful take on a bleak moment in history, Come From Away is a must-see contemplation of what we can do in our darkest hours when we come together. Those who seek a fantastic feel-good musical that does not gloss over the trials of life should hasten to see it.

Tickets to Come From Away can be purchased here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Come From Away?”

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Currently out on Broadway is August Wilson’s Jitney. This play is an intricate, multidimensional story about cab (jitney) drivers in 1977 and their worlds colliding after their jobs are threatened. Jitney encompasses the human struggle to deal with family, success, and love. Through extremely complex characters, Wilson creates a narrative that highlights themes of generational differences, failing your parents, and creating a better life for yourself. Below is an interview with cast member and actor Keith Randolph Smith, who plays Doub in the show. 

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

What is the role of August Wilson’s work in today’s society? Especially since Jitney is on Broadway now and Fences is in theaters.

This is an opinion, but August plays a part in expressing culture. He is a storyteller and poet. He has a poet’s ear for language and distilling feelings and thought into a rhythmic miracle language that is truly showing the dignity that these characters have. It allows people in the culture to recognize themselves and their parents, uncles, etc. It also allows people not within the culture to witness conversations and modes of behavior and topics that they wouldn’t be privy to. His work is a chance to share the culture of African Americans. Wilson had love for his characters and gave them such dignity in going about their daily lives.

This is the first time Jitney is on Broadway – why is now a good time?

You know how old folks say how things always happen in the right time? I could never understand it or explain it. There is a reason it is happening now – I don’t know why, but economics, theater availability, interest, etc come into play as well. It works right now because of the political landscape, where people are being marginalized, though they are part of the mosaic of the United States. Workers, these drivers in the play, create an industry for themselves. In this time, 1977, yellow cabs wouldn’t go everywhere, so these jitneys came into being in Pittsburg to get people to get groceries and get rides when you needed them.

Do you have a favorite line from the play?

The exchange between Doub and Sheila:

“Becker’s boy is getting out of the penitentiary today.”

“No kiddin’. Time goes along and comes around. It goes and never stops.”

There is a scene in the play that discusses two wrongs not making a right and how that statement loses meaning when you are continuously wronged. What do you think about this statement? How does it apply to today?

Booster and Becker have a discussion of just epic proportions, spiritual matters, moral, and ethical matters. Booster comes out of a place after killing this girl by thinking more with his heart than his head. He tells his father he was wrong and that he did it. He’s debating morals and ethics and says there’s a reason he did it. They have a point of view and both feel they are right. It’s the definition of a tragedy. On one hand, Becker believes Booster is wrong for taking a life — that it’s not in your realm of power — but Booster thought he was right, he didn’t want to go to prison for something he didn’t do. He would rather go to prison for something he did do, rather than a lie. August gets you to understand the other side and presents it to you. It’s tough because many people are spiritual, philosophical, ethical, etc, but you can’t justify it even with telling me your thought process. So, August isn’t getting into that – but is highlighting the relationships both of these men had and that they both lost the women they love and blame each other for that loss.

What is the message you think families should take away from this show?

Family was big for August. I try to talk to people after the show. They say they’re are going to call their father on the train. The past couple of weeks, people have lost people, and it was felt at the theatre. There was an actor who just saw it, and he died. So, that’s why people want to do that. Generational differences have been around forever. The parent’s job is to teach you things so you can live on your own. Then, when they get older, the circle of life comes around, and you take care of them. The young have to help them with technology. The people in the play in the station make a family. You are born into a family, and then there is the family that you choose. We all play various roles like that with each other. There are so many levels to it — generational and familial. I love the play, not just because I’m in it.

Do you have any advice for the Columbia community?

I mean, I was a theatre major. I just like the fact that you guys are in school. As corny as it sounds, you are the future and the world. It’s good to know that a lot of bright people are at Columbia getting prepared to change and love the world and help everyone else, no matter in what field. But, especially in politics. I saw a bit of what recently happened at UC Berkeley. It brings up a question of: do we shut down what we don’t want to hear? Should we present many viewpoints? We don’t want to be the ones on the wrong side of history where we could do something but we didn’t. I just hope that everyone at Columbia is living consciously about the world they live in, especially those in the arts. Your work and all of our art is a reflection of what we are going through and the world: that goes into all of your choices. I have less years ahead than you do, so I really want your peers to stand up. Like Bob Marley said, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”

August Wilson’s Jitney is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, and $30 rush tickets are available for purchase on the same day of each performance.