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Art & Soul: The Performance Arts - UMS Still Improvising As Season Begins And Pandemic Is Not Over


With its last season online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Michigan University Musical Societyofficials have been planning some in-person performances this coming season.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with UMS president Matthew VanBesien about their plans for the upcoming season and some in-person performance protocols they expect to be announcing soon.


Lisa Barry: [00:00:00] You're listening to Eighty-Nine one WEMU, and this is Art and Soul. I'm Lisa Barry, and, this week, Art and Soul is about the performance arts. Still pivoting as the pandemic continues, we've been looking forward to some in-person events with the University of Michigan University Musical Society. So, joining us now to talk about what we can look forward to as the new season gets underway, as UMS President Matthew Van Besien. Good to talk to you.

Credit Peter Smith
UMS president Matthew Van Besien

Matthew Van Besien: [00:00:28] Hi, Lisa. How are you doing?

Lisa Barry: [00:00:30] Can you believe it's been, I think, four years since you started in this position at UMS?

Matthew Van Besien: [00:00:35] I know. It's gone really, really quickly. It's been exciting. There have been no dull moments. And certainly for all of us, it's not been uneventful for the last 18 months or so. But we're excited about looking at the new season and really being mindful about everybody's safety, but also really gearing up for what we hope will be some really wonderful live performances.

Lisa Barry: [00:00:56] Where are you on all that? I know you're saying, September 1st, you'll announce where you are for in-person events. And what's the latest thinking about that?

Matthew Van Besien: [00:01:05] Right. Well, you know, look, I want everyone out there, all of our audiences and people considering coming to UMS events know that the first priority for us is our audiences, their health and safety. We want people to feel comfortable coming into our venues when we start in earnest in October. And we want everyone to know that we're kind of monitoring this on a day-by-day, week-by-week, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. You and I both know that we're still operating in a pretty fluid environment. So, we are going to announce some safety protocols and policies on September 1st. But we also need our audiences to understand that they may have to change or they may be adjusted as time goes on, because, as we know, things continue to evolve. But we're excited to announce as much as we can on September 1st. That will include policies around masks and venues that will include potentially proof of vaccination, like many venues and many organizations around the country are doing. We're looking at a range of things. We're working very, very hard to be able to announce what we can on September 1st.

Lisa Barry: [00:02:14] What do you consider your season opener at this point?

Credit UMS / ums.org
Jonas Kaufmann

Matthew Van Besien: [00:02:18] Well, we have a few things going on. We have some wonderful outdoor events happening even coming up starting this Saturday through the next four weeks--those are our You Can Dance - Outside workshops. Our first indoor, in-person live event is on October 12th. And this was actually a special concert that we added just a few weeks ago with arguably the greatest tenor today, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. So, that's on October 12th at Hill Auditorium. There's actually a little bit of serendipity or kind of a synergy with the last pandemic. Back in 1918, Enrique Caruso, who was arguably the most famous tenor in the world--he was supposed to come to Ann Arbor and couldn't come because of the influenza pandemic. But he came the next year. He came in 1919. And it kind of feels like maybe history is repeating itself again.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:16] Well, we'll cross our fingers that it will happen this year, right?

Matthew Van Besien: [00:03:20] Absolutely.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:21] What's the Michigan Opera Theatre up to? Sounds like a bit of a marathon plan.

Matthew Van Besien: [00:03:26] Yeah, this is an amazing project. So, our friends at Michigan Opera Theatre, and we've been very proud to work with them before. We're so excited about Yuval Sharon, their new artistic director. And so, we wanted to be helpful in his first season and all the exciting things that we're doing. So, UMS is helping produce a work called Bliss. And Bliss is not really an opera, per se, but it's kind of a performance piece that lasts 12 hours, and it's a staging of some of the final minutes of Mozart's wonderful opera, The Marriage of Figaro. And this is some of the most beautiful and sublime music imaginable. And Bliss takes those three minutes of Mozart performed by an orchestra and its cast and does them in repetition over a very, very long period of time. And it creates this really wonderful moment that's very spiritual. It's very beautiful, but it allows people in the audience to kind of enjoy it, experience it in their own way. It's an amazing work. And we're going to be performing this actually in what are the remnants of the old Michigan Theater in downtown Detroit, which is an incredibly atmospheric space. So, that's actually happening on September 25th. It's actually a Michigan Opera Theatre production, but UMS is really proud that we're going to take part.

Lisa Barry: [00:04:55] Does anyone stay for the whole 12 hours?

Matthew Van Besien: [00:04:57] You know, Lisa, I can't imagine there won't be a few, but it's really meant to be both something that you experience in terms of the performance, but also something that you can really reflect on over a long period of time. So, I'm so proud that we're we're doing this with Michigan Opera Theater. And, again, we want to be incredibly supportive and show our excitement about this next chapter with artistic director Yuval Sharon.

Lisa Barry: [00:05:23] And back to Ann Arbor. What other in-person events can we look forward to moving forward? Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

Credit UMS / ums.org
Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Matthew Van Besien: [00:05:29] Yeah, right. So, Jonas Kaufmann on October 12. And then our next Hill Auditorium performance is actually November 28 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and our great friend Wynton Marsalis. They will be back here in Ann Arbor for yet another performance. We've had the great fortune of having Wynton and the band here nearly every year for the last 25 years.

Lisa Barry: [00:05:52] We missed him last year.

Credit UMS / ums.org
Takács Quartet with Julien Labro.

Matthew Van Besien: [00:05:53] I know we did. We missed them and many others last year, but we're thrilled to have them back here. They are great colleagues, great friends. This is such a special holiday concert that they do every year. The last time they came here and did this a couple of years ago--it was just absolutely red hot as a concert. The arrangements were amazing. So, that happens at the end of November. And then, in early December, we have two beautiful things happening. One is the Takacs String Quartet and accordion player Julien Labro. They're doing a wonderful program. Really interesting. Some new works that you UMS helped commission. These are some of the most amazing musicians, the Takacs Quartet, who've been in Ann Arbor and UMS many times. Julien Labro is an artist we've been dying to kind of have back here in in Ann Arbor. That's happening. And, of course, our annual performance of Handel's Messiahwith our UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony. So these are wonderful things that will carry us through December. And then, we have a lot happening starting January through April.

Lisa Barry: [00:06:56] And I don't think people realize planning ahead how difficult that is for you at UMS. I mean, we're in a pandemic, and you fly in the performers or you don't fly in the performers. You sell tickets to the auditorium or you don't sell tickets to the auditorium. So, I don't think we can stress enough how remaining flexible is just going to help everyone in this situation.

Matthew Van Besien: [00:07:16] You know, we pride ourselves in the art of being flexible already, and even putting on a season in the best of times and circumstances requires flexibility and, you know, just really being able to adapt to the moment. So, this will be extra true about this coming season. But we have some really, really wonderful special things that we're just so excited to share with our audiences. And we just ask for everyone's patience, but also to let them know that we will do these wonderful things. And we can't wait to welcome all of you back into our concert halls.

Lisa Barry: [00:07:49] You're a musician. I think the word "improvise" is fitting here, is it not?

Matthew Van Besien: [00:07:53] Yes, I think it is, especially for a station like WEMU.

Credit UMS / ums.org
Handel's 'Messiah' performed by the UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.


Lisa Barry: [00:07:58] Matthew Van Besien is president of the University Musical Society. Thank you so much for talking to us here at 89 one WEMU.

Matthew Van Besien: [00:08:05] Lisa, thank you so much. And thanks to you and everyone there at the station for all that you do and have done for all of us throughout the pandemic. Your work was extraordinary and vibrant and important before the pandemic. But thank you for being there for all of us during this time.

Lisa Barry: [00:08:23] And thank you.


**Special thanks to Paul Keller for providing the Art & Soul theme music.**

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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