University Symphony Orchestra recently hosted their first performance of 2020 at Hill Auditorium. Conducted by School of Music, Theatre & Dance faculty Kenneth Kiesler and composed of University students, the group is an elegant portrayal of the musical talent of both the student body and the faculty who guide them.
The first piece was George Gershwin’s incredibly lively “Cuban Overture.” Featuring drums and shakers uncharacteristic of a symphonic performance, its paced transitions between slow and fast playing mimicked a sense of day and night in an intriguing way. I felt as though I was being drawn onto the stage with the pushes and pulls of the music. I could have sworn that in the midst of “Cuban Overture,” I heard a hint of the melody of “Rhapsody in Blue,” another piece written by Gershwin. Perhaps this musical interlude was intentional, or, perhaps, I was just overzealous to hear my favorite Gershwin piece live for the first time.
“A banjo?” I turned to some friends who had accompanied me to the event. They shared the same curiosity. The instrument is not typically part of the symphonic artillery, so we were eager to hear its place in “Rhapsody in Blue.” As it turned out, though, the banjo did not play a large role in the piece, and I was disappointed that USO had not implemented a banjo solo in their rendition of the historic piece.
One of my favorite parts of “Rhapsody in Blue” is the piano. On piano for USO was none other than Logan Skelton, a pianist and composer with an expansive resume including stints with the Manhattan School of Music and Missouri State University. Currently, Skelton is the Professor of Piano and Director of Doctoral Studies in Piano Performance here at the University of Michigan. As I learned during the performance, Skelton is a contributor to The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition of “Concerto in F” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and his expertise on the piece shined through during his performance. A dichotomy of strong and light was evident in his playing, mimicking the overall mood of pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The final piece, “Symphonic Dances, op. 45,” written in 1940, was a set from one of my favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff . This set featured dichotomous shifts throughout each featured piece from “op. 45,” with a defined blend of bass and treble, soft and harsh and hurried and relaxed.
The USO performance was a night of dichotomies, featuring masterful shifts from slow to fast, day to night, bass to treble, soft to abrupt, tense to relaxed and strong to light. Though these can be explicitly written down in the sheet music, it can be very difficult to actually embody those shifts or those moods. Without a doubt, this was the best performance from any group at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance that I have attended, and much of that is due to the execution of those important shifts in feeling. I applaud Kiesler, Skelton and the USO for hitting the nail on the head with these complex pieces.
USO’s next performance will be held on Feb. 24 at Hill Auditorium.