Category: Conservatory

Porky’s finds its goofy, funky groove in return to Lawrence, Mile of Music

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

What does a hot dog, a squid, and a red Power Ranger have in common?

Well, they are the stage personas for three of the seven members of Porky’s Groove Machine, a high-energy funk band known for mixing big musical talents with randomly odd costumes and a heavy dose of silliness.

The Minneapolis-based band, which got its start on the Lawrence University campus and is comprised completely of Lawrence alumni, is bringing its love of music and fun back to Appleton for the annual Mile of Music festival Aug. 1-4. The band will be performing on stage (details below) and for the fifth year in a row will be part of the Music Education Team presenting immersive musical experiences throughout the downtown festival.

Mile of Music, Lawrence have deep ties. See more here.

Fresh off the release of a new album, Hello, My Name Is, Porky’s Groove Machine continues to build a strong fan base across the Midwest, all while dressed in incredibly random costumes.

Matt Lowe ’14, Marshall Yoes ’14, Eli Edelman ’14, Nick Allen ’14, Luke Rivard ’15, Ilan Blanck ’16 and Shasta Tresan ’17 all got their start with the band while students at Lawrence. They bonded via the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, started out playing campus parties and have maintained a close association with the school and Appleton even though they’ve all settled nearly 300 miles away in the Twin Cities.

“We were just hanging out, getting really excited about music through the Conservatory,” Allen said of the band’s start-up. “And we wanted to play. So, we just got together to jam a little bit and then, like, make up some songs.”

Eight years later, Porky’s is a thing.

We caught up with the band earlier this summer when they returned to downtown Appleton to play the weekly Heid Music Summer Concert Series in Houdini Plaza.  

Porky's Groove Machine, wearing wildly random costumes, perform on stage at Houdini Plaza.
The wildly random costumes have long been part of the show for Porky’s Groove Machine. It started when they were Lawrence students, playing campus parties. Here they perform earlier this summer in Houdini Plaza in downtown Appleton.

Goofy from the start 

The group initially formed in 2011 while all the original members of the band were students at Lawrence. What started as a cover band playing campus parties quickly evolved. Since then, the band has grown in size and outreach, rotated in new members (all Lawrentians) and wrote a ton of music, some of which is featured on Hello, My Name Is, an album released in March.

The band has grown a lot from those early days at Lawrence, but it was at Lawrence where the foundation for spreading funk and silliness was set.

The campus environment, where people were learning and challenging themselves but also having a good time, set the wheels in motion. It turns out things don’t always have to be so serious. Sure, a classical music education was part of the process, but improvisation was always encouraged and a sense of humor was embraced.

“I feel like just having gone to Lawrence and just having been in this funny environment, you know what I mean, where these particularly funny things happen, there’s already a common ground for a sort of goofiness,” Blanck said.

The band took that goofiness and supercharged it on stage. They’ve come to be known for their creative stage personas. When performing at parties on campus in those early days, they would dress to fit the theme of the party. It carried over from there, and soon fans were connecting to the random weirdness of the band’s costumes.

Blanck said he remembers that a-ha moment when he realized the costumes had become an important part of their identity as a band.

“I remember we played a show once and people tweeted at us,” Blanck said. “Someone we didn’t know was like ‘#powerranger, #squid , #hotdogtrombone, so confused but I’m so happy,’ and it was like, I guess those are alive now, and then from there on everyone started looking for it, kind of digging into it a little more.”  

Ilan Blanck wears a red Power Ranger suit while performing at Houdini Plaza.
Ilan Blanck ’16 wears the red Power Ranger suit with pride. The costumes, he said, are part of the fun and help make the band accessible.

Porky’s takes off

Porky’s became a well-known group on campus, performing at events ranging from an Earth Day celebration to a Yule Ball. And as the on-campus following grew, they started to become recognizable off campus as well, performing at bars and clubs in downtown Appleton and elsewhere in the Fox Valley.

“I remember our first off-campus show was at Déjà vu Martini Lounge,” Allen said. 

As band members graduated, many began settling in the Twin Cities. Eventually, all who stayed with the band landed there. And while they all have day jobs, many of them music related, they began dedicating more and more time to Porky’s. In 2018, they played nearly 70 shows. The band became a registered LLC in the state of Minnesota, and Porky’s, if it wasn’t before, was now a full-on passion that was commanding much of their free time. 

“We all ended up moving to Minneapolis to make Porky’s happen, so it’s a serious component of how we are making decisions in our lives,” Yoes said. 

Making music 

As Porky’s has become that serious — yet still goofy — endeavor, the music the band performs has shifted and evolved. What started as a mostly cover band with only one or two original tracks is now a band producing mostly original music. They have released three EPs and two albums to date.  

“When we first started, when we played these gigs at the bars downtown, we’d play a four-hour show, and you know we would have to fill all this time, so we played a bunch of covers and we jammed them out for 15 or 20 minutes each,” Lowe said.

“And then our originals would be like, ‘Hey, everybody, we finally wrote a song.’ We’d have one song to show off.  Now it’s more like we’ll do an all-original set and then we’ll put in two or three covers.”

The humor behind their stage personas also shows up in their homegrown lyrics. With songs like “Don’t Put Love in the Granola” or “The (Not Quite a) Ball of Trombone,” the group embraces the silliness. 

“We hear from people who see our show who maybe don’t get a big dose of goofy in their lives,” Allen said. “We often hear from people who are like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before, but thank you.’

“So, that always inspires me and makes me feel good to come up with something that’s going to connect with someone and give them a sort of absurdity or silliness or some kind of release that they need.” 

Beyond a band  

Porky’s Groove Machine members also apply this concept of releasing people’s silly side when they teach music workshops. And they do a lot of workshops, mostly geared toward children, spreading the joy of music-making.

“We get questions from students, like why do you wear your costumes, why do you look like that, or why are you running around and yelling?” Rivard said.

“And our whole perspective is, well, you know, rather than approaching music in a very studious and very hard to reach place, we want to make it as comfortable and as inviting to students as possible. That allows us to get students to improvise and to write music on the spot because they feel comfortable. They know that no matter what they do, they’re not going to look dumber than we do.”

The workshops that are part of Mile of Music are among their favorites. Through working with the festival’s Music Education Team, led by Lawrence music education instructor Leila Ramagopal Pertl, the group has been able to share that love of music in Appleton. It’s one of the things that has inspired them to create workshops of their own where they are able to teach students improvisation, music fundamentals, and thinking outside the box.  

Staying Connected  

Being able to teach music as a band and perform several times a year in the Appleton area has given the members the opportunity to stay tight with Lawrence, the Conservatory in particular.

“We are back here all the time, seeing the dean and our teachers,” Lowe said. “We performed at the Lawrence Academy camp (two summers ago), and we’re working with the Mile of Music Education Team, which is deeply linked with the Lawrence Conservatory.” 

For Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory, the success of the Porky’s band speaks to the commitment and joy each of the band members finds in music. And their willingness to give back through Mile of Music and other music workshops is a great reflection on Lawrence and the mission of the Conservatory.

“I have had the great pleasure and privilege of working closely with almost every member of Porky’s,” Pertl said. “In particular, Matt Lowe and Nick Allen took didgeridoo lessons with me for their entire four years at Lawrence.”

Don’t let the goofball costumes fool you. The music that Porky’s is creating is stellar. That it’s mixed with energy and fun, and delivered with a full heart, all the better.

“I love that Porky’s seamlessly combines high-level musicianship, a sense of humor, and a deep commitment to music education,” Pertl said. 

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office. 

Where to see Porky’s at Mile of Music

Friday, Aug. 2: 9:30 p.m. at Deja Vu Martini Lounge, 519 W. College Ave., Appleton

Saturday, Aug. 3: 7:40 p.m. at Emmett’s Bar and Grill, 139 N. Richmond St., Appleton

Saturday, Aug. 3: 10 p.m. on the Mile of Music bus.

Deep connections: Lawrence, Mile of Music in sync from the start

Leila Ramagopal Pertl participates in a sing-along at an earlier Mile of Music festival.
Leila Ramagopal Pertl, a music education instructor at Lawrence University, has been the leader of Mile of Music’s Music Education Team from the start.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

There has been a special blend of music in the air in Appleton each August since Mile of Music was founded in 2013.

From the debut six years ago through the upcoming seventh edition, Lawrence University has been tightly connected to the all-original music festival every step of the way, most notably by leading the robust music education component, but also providing performance spaces and counting its alumni among the performing artists.

Mile of Music returns for Mile 7 Aug. 1-4, with 900 performances taking place in 70 venues along a mile stretch of College Avenue in the city’s downtown. Nearly 50 music education workshops will be included, organized by the Music Education Team (MET), allowing festival-goers to get interactive instruction in diverse forms of music and dance.

I talked with Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, and Leila Ramagopal Pertl, a Lawrence instructor in music education and the festival’s music education curator, about the five deepest ties between Lawrence and Mile of Music.

1. Lawrence’s fingerprints have been on Mile of Music from the start

In the spring of 2013, Mile of Music co-founders Dave Willems and Cory Chisel approached Brian Pertl with a vision of using the new festival as a way to support music education in the community. Pertl referred them to Ramagopal Pertl, whose passion for music education led her to the motto, “Music is a birthright.”

She suggested the new festival incorporate hands-on music-making workshops, an idea that proved to be brilliant. The music education component was a hit from the get-go, and has grown far more robust in the six years since that debut. It has solidified Mile of Music’s reputation as a special community learning experience.

“It’s what sets this festival apart from probably any other festival in the world, that there’s this priority on allowing people in the community to learn,” Ramagopal Pertl said.

2. Music Education Team has a Lawrentian vibe

The Music Education Team is responsible for organizing and leading the Mile’s music education workshops, which give festival guests the opportunity to discover their musical selves through a variety of music and dance instruction. It continues this year courtesy of a grant from the Bright Idea Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.

The MET is made up of professional artists and educators with a knack for engaging a crowd. The team is heavy on Lawrence participation, from music faculty to alumni to students; the latter can receive class credit for participating.

See the music education workshop schedule here.

The seven members of Porky’s Groove Machine, all Lawrence alumni, are a big part of the MET. The Minneapolis-based funk band, also a popular festival performer, has been returning for the festival for five years, in large part because of the opportunity to engage with people in the workshops. Each of the band members — Matt Lowe ’14, Marshall Yoes ’14, Eli Edelman ’14, Nick Allen ’14, Luke Rivard ’15, Ilan Blanck ’16 and Shasta Tresan ’17 — are tied in to music education on some level, making the music workshops they do here and elsewhere a natural extension of their passions.

“Mile of Music is what really prompted us to think, ‘Oh, we can do this as a group together,’” Lowe said. “I would attribute that to Brian Pertl and his wife, Leila, who are the star music educators of the world. They taught us a lot of what we know and how to do things, and we’re definitely inspired by them.”

Other alums also are returning to lead workshops, Corey Torres ’12 and Bernard Lilly ’18 among them.

Porky’s Groove Machine keeps the funk rolling. See more here.

Meet the full Music Education Team here.

The festival’s workshops range from mariachi, hip-hop and samba to Afro-Cuban drumming, P-bone funk and Balinese angklung.

Last year, the 25-member Music Education Team led nearly 50 music education events that were attended by more than 7,000 festival-goers. By the end of this year’s festival, more than 25,000 people will have participated in the interactive events since they were launched during Mile 1.

Ramagopal Pertl said connecting people to the music — as participants, not just passive listeners — has proven to be a draw.

“It’s really important for people to come and feel what it’s like to make music in collaboration with other people around you,” she said. “Not only are you probably rediscovering something that was yours to begin with, but you have a greater understanding of why artists on the Mile play music. That was important for us here on the MET.”

Ilan Blanck, a member of Porky's Groove Machine, teaches at a guitar workshop during an earlier Mile of Music.
Ilan Blanck ’16, here teaching a guitar workshop at an earlier Mile of Music, will return with Porky’s Groove Machine to both teach at workshops and perform. The band members have been part of Mile of Music for the last five years.

3. Lawrence alumni on stage at Mile of Music

Lawrence alumni have graced the Mile of Music stages since the festival’s founding. Porky’s Groove Machine is coming back to the Mile this year in full costume to put on a funk-inspired show, and Lilly, performing as B. Lilly, will showcase his signature blend of R&B, jazz, hip-hop and gospel, in addition to leading a songwriting and performance workshop.

Both have been popular draws at previous Mile of Music festivals. Both also return to Appleton frequently to perform, their fan bases helping to establish this as a second home.

The Mile of Music performance schedule has just been released. See it here.

Porky’s will perform at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2 at Deja Vu Martini Lounge, 519 W. College Ave., and 7:40 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3 at Emmett’s Bar and Grill, 139 N. Richmond St. They’ll also be performing on the Mile of Music bus at 10 p.m. Saturday.

B. Lilly will perform at 7:40 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2 at Fox River House, 211 S. Walnut St., and 6:40 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3 at OB’s Brau Haus, 523 W. College Ave. He’ll also be on the Mile of Music bus at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

For more on B. Lilly, Porky’s Groove Machine and other Mile of Music performers, including a chance to sample their music, visit here.

Lawrence Memorial Chapel is seen during an earlier Mile of Music performance.
Memorial Chapel is among the spaces on the Lawrence campus again hosting Mile of Music performances. Stansbury Theater and Harper Hall also will be utilized for performances or music education workshops, as will outdoor green spaces near the Conservatory.

4. Lawrence venues anchor the east end of the Mile

State-of-the-art performance facilities and beautiful green spaces make the Lawrence campus a great place to host music events.

Each year, Lawrence provides Mile of Music with venues for concerts and music education workshops. These include Stansbury Theater and Memorial Chapel, the latter being one of the festival’s main stages where artists from around the country enjoy resonant sound quality and intimate performance experiences.

Memorial Chapel, one of the festival’s Main Stages, will host more than 25 performances between Thursday and Saturday, including start-your-day medleys featuring three artists each at noon Thursday, 11:30 a.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday. Some of the notables scheduled for the chapel stage include Dan Rodriguez with The Talbott Brothers (6:45 p.m. Friday), King Cardinal (8:40 p.m. Friday), a combo of Tanya Gallagher, Paul Childers, Megan Slankard and Bascom Hill (6:30 p.m. Saturday) and Hugh Masterson (8 p.m. Saturday).

Harper Hall and outdoor green spaces such as The Grove and the Conservatory Green often host music education events on the east end of the Mile.

Mile of Music’s interactive workshops draw festival-goers of all ages. An estimated 7,000 people took part in the workshops during last year’s four-day festival.

5. Bonding over shared philosophies of community engagement

Lawrence and Mile of Music both emphasize community, a connection that has brought success since their partnership began in 2013. As part of that, the Music Education Team has put an emphasis on diversity, sharing instruments and music from across cultures in interactive, intimate settings.

“Our MET team has a deep commitment to celebrating the diversity of cultures and music-making that exists right here in our community,” Pertl said.

For the first time this year, Mile of Music will represent Native American and Asian-Indian music with workshops on Native American flute and dances of India.

Mile of Music is all about using music to create community. And Lawrence’s work in creating a close-knit community on campus has extended to its partnership with Mile of Music.

“Lawrence’s commitment to building community through music and music education perfectly aligns with the mission of Mile of Music,” Pertl said. “The seven-year partnership between Mile and Lawrence has helped redefine Appleton as a city that deeply values art, music and music education.”

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office. Awa Badiane ’21 contributed to this report.

From Holiday to “Hamilton,” the coming months in Appleton look glorious

Publicity photo of "Hamilton" performance.
“Hamilton” to come to Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in October.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

If entertainment offerings in or near Lawrence University are a big part of campus life — and they are — we are in for a spectacular 14 months ahead.

We’ll define “near Lawrence” to mean downtown Appleton, 100% walkability.

Lawrence unveiled its 2019-20 Performing Arts Series earlier this month. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center released its spectacular 2019-20 Broadway lineup a few weeks ago. And the Mile of Mile Music crew just announced plans for Mile 7.

All we can say is, where do we get in line?

We can’t do them all, of course, but the options look glorious. We’ve highlighted 20 shows to circle on the calendar. This doesn’t include all the great live music available on a regular basis in the downtown area, the weekly farmer’s market, other arts offerings, or all the great theater and music performances at Lawrence.

But these 20 have us pretty fired up.

1: John Holiday, faculty recital, 8 p.m. May 1, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: We’re starting with something that should definitely not slide under the radar. Holiday is one of the Conservatory of Music’s brightest lights. He’s a rising national star in the opera world and has significant chops as a jazz vocalist as well. After giving this recital – and it’s free – his upcoming schedule includes performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, shows in England, Shanghai and Switzerland and dates with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Los Angeles Opera. Joining him May 1 will be Mark Urness (double bass), Dane Richeson (drums), Andrew Crooks (piano) and Neeki Bey (piano).

Portrait of John Holiday
John Holiday

2: Derek Hough: Live! The Tour, 7:30 p.m. May 19, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: This one is for the ballroom dancers out there. It’s a solo tour from the dancer who helped put “Dancing with the Stars” on the map.

3: Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, 8 p.m. May 22, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: Fresh off its back-to-back DownBeat Awards, the LUJE highlights the incredible quality of musicianship up and down the roster in the Conservatory of Music. And May is a month where the Conservatory is on full display. Take your pick from a full calendar of Conservatory concerts.

4: John Prine, 8 p.m. May 24, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: One of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever pick up a guitar, Prine returns to the PAC on the heels of his Grammy-nominated album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.”

5: Mile of Music, Aug. 1-4, downtown Appleton: The festival features more than 900 performances in 70 venues in and around College Avenue. It’s the seventh year of the all-original music festival that has grown into one of Wisconsin’s premier music events. Lawrence plays a big role, with the Conservatory faculty leading the music education portion of the festival. Best of all, most of the performances — mostly up-and-coming artists from around the country — are free.  

6: Nick Offerman, All Rise tour, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: In the spirit of this standup show coming to Appleton, we quote (but don’t necessarily endorse) Ron Swanson, Offerman’s “Parks & Recreation” character: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Don’t teach a man to fish, and you feed yourself. He’s a grown man. Fishing isn’t that hard.”

7: Octoberfest, College Avenue, downtown Appleton, Sept. 28: The annual downtown bash ends the summer festival season with a bevy of live music, food and drink that takes over College Avenue with a mass of humanity. Look for the annual License to Cruise on Friday night, then the Octoberfest party all day Saturday. See info here.

8: “Hamilton,” Oct. 1-20, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: Yes, it’s that “Hamilton.” We’ve been waiting two years since the announcement that the Broadway juggernaut is coming to Appleton. Season tickets are on sale now but individual tickets won’t go on sale until much closer to fall. An on-sale date has yet to be announced. Also, watch for information on possible Student Rush tickets for this and other shows at the PAC.

9: Brooklyn Rider, 8 p.m. Oct. 4, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: This is the kickoff of the Artist Series portion of the Performing Arts Series. A string quartet that melds classical, world and rock sounds. (Season tickets for the series are on sale now; single show tickets go on sale Sept. 17, 920-832-6749, boxoffice@lawrence.edu.)

10: Lawrence University Studio Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: The Friday night kickoff to the Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend will put the talents of Lawrence music faculty and students on full display. The Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra will be doing a combo, filled with jazz classics and plenty of improvisation.

11: Miguel Zenon Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: The Saturday night of Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend features this multiple Grammy nominee from San Juan who is considered a groundbreaking saxophonist.

12: “The Phantom of the Opera,” Dec. 4-15, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: The musical, a classic loved by some, loathed by others, returns to Appleton as part of the PAC’s Broadway series.

13: Blue Man Group, Jan. 24-26, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: Performance art in the shade of blue. It’s a spectacle.

14: Bill Frisell: Harmony featuring Petra Haden, Hank Roberts, and Luke Bergman, 8 p.m. Feb. 7, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: Frisell, a prolific guitarist, will lead this group through a range of blues and popular American traditions. It’s part of LU’s Jazz Series.

Portrait of Tine Thing Helseth
Tine Thing Helseth

15: Tine Thing Helseth, 8 p.m. Feb. 28, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: A Norwegian trumpet soloist with a rock star following. Also part of the Artist Series.

16: Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, 8 p.m. April 3, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: A high-energy piano duo that is part of the Artist Series. The Miami Herald referred to them as “rock stars of the classical music world.”

17: Melody Moore, 8 p.m. April 18, Memorial Chapel: A soprano who has been drawing raves on some of the top opera stages in the world. Our own John Holiday hails her as “thoughtful, engaging and fiercely talented.” Part of the Artist Series.

18: Tigran Hamasyan Trio, 8 p.m. May 1, 2020, Lawrence Memorial Chapel: A pianist and composer with a jazz-meets-rock sound that has drawn wide praise. Lawrence’s Jose Encarnacion calls him “one of the most remarkable and distinctive jazz piano virtuosos of his generation.” His performance is part of the Jazz Series.

19: “The Band’s Visit,” May 5-10, 2020, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: The sixth of seven shows on the PAC’s Broadway lineup, this is a touring version of the musical that won 10 Tonys in 2018. It’s based on a 2007 Israeli film.

Publicity photo of "Dear Evan Hansen" performance.
“Dear Evan Hansen”

20: “Dear Evan Hansen,” June 23-28, 2020, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: The finale of the PAC’s Broadway season, this musical tells the emotionally rich tale of a lonely teen who becomes a social media sensation, all quite by accident. For a full listing of shows at the PAC, visit here.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

LU Jazz Ensemble takes a top DownBeat award for second year in a row

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Link to video of Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble
Click above to see video of the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble.

It’s back-to-back wins for the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble.

The ensemble has been named the winner in the undergraduate Large Jazz Ensemble category in Downbeat magazine’s 42nd annual Student Music Awards (SMAs) competition, which awards some of the highest honors in jazz education each spring. 

“The students in the Jazz Ensemble work together on music that is unique, challenging, and a joy to perform,” said Patty Darling, a music professor in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music who directs the much-lauded ensemble. “This includes a lot of contemporary jazz rep and premier works from Lawrence’s student jazz composers and arrangers.”

The honor was announced Tuesday and appears in the newly published June edition of DownBeat magazine.

This is the second consecutive year that Lawrence has won the top honor in the large ensemble category, and the fifth time in the ensemble’s history that it has been honored by DownBeat.

More on the Conservatory of Music and the LUJE here

Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble performs at Memorial Chapel.
Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble

This is not small stuff. DownBeat’s SMAs are top-tier honors in the world of jazz education. They are presented in 13 categories in five separate divisions: junior high, high school, performing high school, undergraduate college and graduate college.

Lawrence has been a major player in those awards over the past four decades. To date, students and ensembles in the Lawrence Conservatory have won 28 of these awards in various categories, including undergraduate large ensemble, small group, jazz composing, jazz arranging, solo performance, and jazz vocal group. 

This was the fifth time in its history the Jazz Ensemble has been honored by DownBeat. It was previously recognized in 1985, 2000, 2007 and 2018.

Back-to-back wins for the Jazz Ensemble is something the school, its faculty and students can take great pride in, Darling said.

“It is a privilege to work with such talented, dedicated musicians who are so receptive and have such down-to-earth attitudes,” Darling said. “We are incredibly proud of them and I am very grateful to the jazz faculty who are their mentors.”

If you want to see the LUJE in concert, you can catch them at 8 p.m. May 22 at Memorial Chapel. Admission is free.

The DownBeat Student Music Awards were launched in 1978. Judging criteria are based on musicianship, creativity, improvisation, technique, sound quality and balance, excitement, and authority. Recordings are submitted from institutions worldwide and are judged by panels of respected jazz performers and educators who determine the awards in each of the categories. 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Roomful of Teeth’s Estelí Gomez to join Lawrence Conservatory

Head shot of Esteli Gomez
Estelí Gomez

Estelí Gomez will join Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music in the fall as the newest addition to the voice department.

The Roomful of Teeth vocalist has been part of two Grammy Award wins and was nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Gramophone Award as a soprano soloist. She’s also an accomplished voice instructor, holding a master of music degree from the McGill Schulich School of Music and a bachelor of arts degree in music from Yale.

“She is the rare professional vocalist who can sing at the highest level in practically any style,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the conservatory. “She is intellectually curious and loves to push the boundaries of classical music, and she is a passionate teacher. Estelí is the perfect fit for Lawrence and we are thrilled to welcome her to our faculty.”

Learn more about our award-winning Conservatory of Music!

Gomez, who performed at Lawrence with Roomful of Teeth in 2014 and 2017, said she’s thrilled to be joining Lawrence.

“In my musical travels over the last decade, having visited nearly 80 institutions of higher learning, no school has better exemplified my ideals for a multi-faceted, holistic approach to music education than Lawrence,” Gomez said. “As an undergraduate at Yale, I benefitted so deeply from my liberal arts education, while also exploring courses and ensembles offered through the graduate School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music. I believe wholeheartedly in access to interdisciplinary resources, and know that such access allowed me to become the adaptable, multi-genre, self-managed musician I am today.”

More details will be released at a later date.

2019-20 Performing Arts Series loaded with impressive, creative talent

From a legendary guitarist who has delivered transformative performances for decades to a rising trumpet virtuoso who is already hailed as one of her generation’s best, the lineup for Lawrence University’s 2019-20 Performing Arts Series is stacked with impressive talent.

The lineup was announced Monday, with season tickets immediately going on sale for the Artist Series, the Jazz Series or a compilation of four shows from either of the series. Single show tickets will go on sale Sept. 17. All performances will be in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. For more information, call the Lawrence Box Office at 920-832-6749 or email boxoffice@lawrence.edu.

Artist Series

Portrait of four members of Brooklyn Rider
Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, 2019: With a focus on healing, this string quartet has been drawing rave reviews from classical, world and rock circles. They’ll be performing their new project, Healing Modes, a nod to the healing properties of music. It’s a return visit to Lawrence for the talented foursome.

“Their captivating performances often include collaborations with musicians from outside the classical music sphere” said Samantha George, associate professor of music with the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. “During their last visit to Lawrence, they performed with kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and offered a master class to our students that focused on chamber music skills, improvisation, and extended string techniques. I am thrilled that we will have the chance to hear them play and work with them again next season.”

Portrait of Tine Thing Helseth
Tine Thing Helseth

Tine Thing Helseth, 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28, 2020: The Norwegian trumpet virtuoso has quickly risen in stature, her intensity and enthusiasm garnering her rock star status. She has been hailed as one of today’s foremost trumpet soloists, at ease playing Bach and Haydn but also incorporating arrangements from the likes of Puccini and the Beach Boys.

“She makes such a beautiful sound on the trumpet, and phrases so expressively that you really don’t care what she’s playing, it’s captivating,” said John Daniel, associate professor of trumpet. “I would be happy to listen to her practicing scales or long tones.”

Portrait of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe
Anderson & Roe Piano Duo

Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, 8 p.m. Friday, April 3, 2020: Known for their adrenalized performances, original compositions, and must-see music videos, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe bring high energy to the piano duo experience. The Miami Herald referred to them as “rock stars of the classical music world.” They performed at Lawrence several years ago.

“The Anderson & Roe Piano Duo always give exciting and inventive performances,” said Michael Mizrahi, associate professor of music. “We are thrilled to be welcoming them back to Lawrence.”

Portrait of Melody Moore
Melody Moore

Melody Moore, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18, 2020: A soprano who has played some of the world’s leading stages, Moore is drawing plenty of notice. Opera News called her “a revelation.” Her resume during the past year has included performances with the Houston Grand Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, and she is set to record a solo album of American music for Pentatone Records.

“I am so thrilledto know that my friend and colleague will be visiting Lawrence to present what I know will be a phenomenal recital,” said John Holiday, assistant professor of voice in the Conservatory of Music. “I first met Melody Moore in 2015 at the Glimmerglass Festival, where she made an explosive role debut as Lady Macbeth. We met each other and have been inseparable as buddies. Not only is she the consummate artist, but she is kind, thoughtful, engaging and fiercely talented.

“The beauty in combination with the ferocity with which she sings is something that is mind-blowing to witness. Buckle up, Lawrentians, because we are in for an amazing treat.” 

Jazz Series

Side-by-side photos of Lawrence Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra.
Lawrence Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra

Lawrence University Studio Orchestra, part of Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, 2019: A special event combining sounds of the Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra with featured performances by members of the jazz faculty. Works include music by Fred Sturm, Chuck Owen, Duke Ellington, and more. More than 100 performers will showcase music that integrates jazz, improvisation and the beautiful sonorities of the orchestra.

Portrait of Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon

Miguel Zenon Quartet, part of Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019: Miguel Zenon is a multiple Grammy nominee. He’s considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential saxophonists of his generation. He also has developed a recognized voice as a composer and as a conceptualist, focused on a mix of Latin American folkloric music and jazz. A native of San Juan, he has released 11 albums under his own name while also working with a bevy of jazz innovators.

“His music honors two traditions — jazz and the traditional folkloric elements of Puerto Rico,” said Jose Encarnacion, assistant professor of music and director of jazz studies. “Every single album tells a complete, beautiful story that reflects a unique musical personality through contemporary arranging, creative imagination and improvisation.”

Portrait of Bill Frisell with Hank Roberts, Luke Bergman and Petra Haden
Bill Frisell with Hank Roberts, Luke Bergman and Petra Haden

Bill Frisell: Harmony featuring Petra Haden, Hank Roberts, and Luke Bergman, 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, 2020: Frisell has carved out a prolific career as a guitarist, composer, and arranger, showing extraordinary range and depth. His work is rooted in jazz but incorporates elements of blues and other popular American music traditions. The Grammy winner has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, filmmakers, and painters through the years.

“The way he moves complex harmonic voicings and linear phrases on the guitar with seamless sophistication is unparalleled,” Encarnacion said. “I personally love everything about his music, especially his collaborations with John Zorn and the Paul Motian’s group.”

Portrait of Tigran Hamasyan
Tigran Hamasyan

Tigran Hamasyan Trio, 8 p.m. Friday, May 1, 2020: The pianist and composer is called one of the most remarkable and distinctive jazz-meets-rock pianists of his generation. A piano virtuoso with groove power, his most recent recording was 2017’s An Ancient Observer, his eighth release as a sole leader.

“I really enjoyed listening to his original compositions and improvisations, which are beautifully influenced and fused with the rich folkloric music of Armenia,” Encarnacion said. “Tigran is definitely one of the most remarkable and distinctive jazz piano virtuosos of his generation.” 

Lawrence University named first Deep Listening Affiliate Campus

A student participating in a Deep Listening retreat at Bjorklunden during the winter sits on a bench looking out at the lake.
A retreat held at Bjorklunden in late 2018 gave participants a chance to practice Deep Listening skills in nature.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University made a commitment nine years ago to embrace the practice of Deep Listening, a pledge to teach skills that improve the breadth and depth of one’s listening.

Now the school has earned the honor of becoming the first Deep Listening Affiliate Campus of the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

That’s a big deal, says Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music and a longtime proponent of the Deep Listening practices developed by the late American composer and musician Pauline Oliveros. He received notice of the new affiliation earlier this month.

“It’s a great honor for Lawrence,” Pertl said.

Deep Listening practices were first introduced in the conservatory, a process for students and faculty to immerse themselves more deeply in the music and movement of the arts. But it soon took root in other areas of campus life, being utilized in classrooms, at Bjorklunden retreats and in the programming offered through the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.

“Deep Listening’s focus on attentive listening, mindfulness, creativity, and building community not only has been a positive enhancement to our world-class conservatory music training, but also allows our students who aren’t pursuing music degrees to explore immersive musical experiences,” Pertl said.

A student musician plays the violin during a concert at Lawrence.
Deep Listening at Lawrence was initially focused on music education in the Conservatory of Music but has since been expanded and embraced across the campus.

Pertl and Leila Pertl, an instructor in the Music Education Department, hold Deep Listening certifications and will be teaching a course, Deep Listening Lab, during spring term.

Leila Pertl is one of six instructors in the international Deep Listening Certification Program.

Lawrence has sent a summer intern to the Center for Deep Listening in Troy, New York, each of the past nine years, and will do so for a 10th time this summer.

For more on Deep Listening opportunities at Lawrence, click here

More photos from the Deep Listening retreat at Bjorklunden here

While much of the Deep Listening practices have been centered around music education in the conservatory, the practices have become part of other events and teachings across campus. It’s been embraced in the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, where being fully present in the moment can be cathartic.

“The campus community has been fortunate to have Deep Listening as part of memorial services, as a way of centering in times of community distress, and as a place for rehumanizing ourselves with one another in times of disagreement,” said Linda Morgan-Clement, dean of Spiritual and Religious Life.

There is a student-led Deep Listening Club on campus that meets for weekly sessions and leads Deep Listening retreats to Bjorklunden in Door County.

Mary Simoni, dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Rensselaer, said in a letter to Brian Pertl that the Center for Deep Listening was launching its affiliates program to honor those institutions that have embraced the teachings of Oliveros and to forge closer communications. It’s an acknowledgement of the “commitment” Lawrence has shown to embracing Oliveros’ vision, she wrote.

For the Pertls, it’s all part of the daily teachings at Lawrence.

“A dedication to improve the breadth and depth of one’s listening is at the core of Deep Listening practice,” Brian Pertl said. “Oliveros described Deep Listening as listening to all things at all times in every way possible. Deep Listening also includes attention to movement, and also sound created in one’s mind — sound in memory, dreams, or actively imagining sound.”

Lawrence’s John Holiday finds joy in recruiting young music talent

John Holiday works with a student in his voice studio.
John Holiday works with a student at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

John Holiday slips comfortably into multiple roles.

There’s John Holiday the performer, considered one of the rising young countertenors on the world opera stage.

There’s John Holiday the educator, a sought-after voice instructor at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music.

And then there’s John Holiday the recruiter, a man on a mission to draw some of the finest student musicians in the country to Lawrence.

He’ll be wearing all those hats this week as he joins the conservatory’s Presto! tour to Houston, but perhaps none as significantly as that of recruiter.

Houston is Holiday’s hometown. His connections there are deep, meaningful and current, and he’ll spend much of this week connecting young musicians from his beloved Texas to the university 1,200 miles away that he now calls home.

Collaborations key to Presto tour to Houston: See story here

“I have significant ties to Houston because of my family and my upbringing and my church,” said Holiday, who was born in Houston and grew up in nearby Rosenberg. “Subsequently, whenever I travel home, I always make sure that I plan to visit many of the high schools in the Houston area, chiefly the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which is a long-standing, well-known school for the creative arts, one of the best in the United States. They have won many, many awards at the national level.”

The Presto! tour, a six-day visit to Houston featuring two Lawrence music ensembles and seven faculty members, brings Holiday’s skills in performance, teaching and recruitment into almost ideal alignment. He’ll perform on March 21 along with the two ensembles in a public concert at the Midtown Arts and Theatre Center and spend considerable time teaching and recruiting at area high schools.

He usually makes the visits to the schools solo. This time he’ll have a team with him, spreading the word of the Conservatory of Music and selling high-achieving students on why a Lawrence education would make sense.

“What I do when I go home is I always make sure that I set up master classes and important meetings with the students, not only at HSPVA but other high schools and junior highs in the area as well, so they can become acquainted with me in terms of the opera singing and the jazz singing that I do, but also so they can become acquainted with what I know is an excellent, excellent place for them, which is the Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University.

“So, it’s really keeping with that that we came up with the idea to take Presto! to Houston.”

Texas is a state that’s rich with music talent. The 33-year-old Holiday, who has been teaching at Lawrence for nearly two years, already has three students from Texas studying in his voice studio. He makes no secret that he’d love to draw more.

“Texas is a huge, huge, huge arts state,” Holiday said. “As long as we’ve got football, there’s always going to be a phenomenal band and choir in Texas. And, because I’m from Houston, I think Houston has the best.

“But I also can say I’ve experienced wonderful singing and wonderful learning in the Dallas and Austin areas, San Antonio, too. They are all over.”









“It’s my endeavor wherever I go to find those students who I believe represent what I think is a good Lawrentian.”

John Holiday


Holiday has much to sell when it comes to student recruitment. First, of course, there is the world-class quality and social outreach of the Lawrence Conservatory. Then there is his own impressive resume, which includes winning the prestigious Marian Anderson Vocal Award and performing on some of the world’s most celebrated stages.

Consider his performance schedule in the coming weeks and months. In addition to his teaching duties and the Presto! tour, there’s a date with the Dallas Opera, a May 1 faculty recital here in Appleton, a recital at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a run of performances in England, a recital in Beverly Hills, a tour to Shanghai, a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performances in Switzerland and then an early 2020 run of performances at the Los Angeles Opera.

That will get the attention of any aspiring musician looking for a mentor.

“Whenever I am somewhere singing a show, I am always recruiting,” Holiday said. “So, if I am in Florida, I’m finding a high school or a group where I can go in and mentor them and do a master class. If I’m in California, I’ll try to find the same thing. I’m actively recruiting because I believe in this school. I believe that we are a phenomenal institution and I believe that we should make it possible for students to get here, so it’s my endeavor wherever I go to find those students who I believe represent what I think is a good Lawrentian.

“A lot of these students have already heard of Lawrence. Then they are able to put a face with a name, with me. And then put a face with the school. Now they say, I know this person is there, so I should totally give it a look.”

More information on Lawrence Conservatory of Music here

It’s hard to put a value on that sort of outreach and energy, said Brian Pertl, dean of the conservatory.

“For us, it’s been an incredible advantage having him on the faculty because he just loves the recruiting,” he said.

Doing that recruiting in your hometown? Even better.

“I’m so looking forward to it,” Holiday said of this week’s Presto! visit to Houston. “It makes my heart soar just knowing there are Texas students coming here, because I am a Texas guy through and through.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Collaborations key as Lawrence Conservatory takes its social impact mantra on the road to Houston

Poster and link to information on the Presto Houston tour.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Three years ago, Brian Pertl, equipped with donated funds that would allow the Lawrence Conservatory to launch an annual music tour, set forth a vision for what that might be.

Concert performances would be only one part of any touring experience, the dean of the conservatory said. Any tour would have to mesh with how the conservatory has been evolving and growing over the past decade.

“We’ve been trying very hard to redefine what a conservatory education is,” Pertl said. “Part of that vision is to really ask the question, how can music impact society in positive ways?”

It was with that mission in mind that Presto! was launched three years ago, an annual music tour that would take Lawrence musicians — students and faculty — into a chosen metro market for a mix of musical performances and community outreach, an immersion aimed at establishing relationships and community well-being as much as sharing talents and expanding the conservatory’s musical footprint.

First came a multi-day visit to Minneapolis, with outreach efforts focused on mental health awareness, in addition to public performances. The second year was a deep dive into Chicago, where concerts were supplemented with outreach efforts with groups serving underrepresented communities.

Link to video of Presto visit to Chicago in 2018.
Video: Revisit the 2018 Presto! tour to Chicago

Now comes year three, and the most ambitious Presto! excursion to date. Beginning today, the New Music Ensemble and a select jazz ensemble, along with seven faculty members, will embark on a six-day trip to Houston — hometown of rising opera star and Assistant Professor of Music John Holiday — to perform at the Midtown Arts and Theatre Center and do music outreach and education.

Presto! 2019 details: Houston info here

Meet LU’s John Holiday: Rising music star and talent recruiter

The outreach will include two days of music collaborations with young artists who create electronic music at Workshop Houston, a nonprofit after-school organization that recently made news when it received a $100,000 donation from rapper Travis Scott.

The Lawrence students also will spend three days in an elementary school working with third- and fourth-graders, teaching arts-integrated lesson plans.

John Holiday head and shoulders photo
John Holiday

A concert on Thursday, March 21 will showcase both of the Lawrence ensembles, featuring students and faculty members. Transitioning from one ensemble to the next will be a set by Holiday, first displaying his talents with a classical repertoire, then pivoting to jazz, where his talents are equally lauded.

Faculty members and Lawrence students also will pay visits to Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The school is a hotbed for the kind of smart, talented musicians Lawrence covets. Pertl said he would love to see more HSPVA students choose to come to Appleton.

“Texas has probably the most astounding public-school music programs in the country,” Pertl said. “It’s phenomenal, the musicians coming out of Texas and the number of musicians coming out of Texas.

“So, for us, if we’re looking at recruiting, anywhere in Texas is a big deal — the fact that John Holiday is from Houston, the fact that John has already created this really amazing relationship with the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, makes Houston a logical choice for the tour. We already have several students from Texas at our conservatory, and we would love to see more.”

Holiday was honored a year ago as the winner of the prestigious Marian Anderson Vocal Award and is considered one of the rising stars of the opera world, a countertenor who got a hometown welcome in November when he sang the National Anthem at a Houston Rockets game.

“He is quickly becoming one of the top operatic countertenors in the world, and his hometown of Houston is embracing their hometown hero,” Pertl said.

Featuring Holiday on the Houston trip, both in recruiting young talent and being showcased at the concert, ties everything together. In the case of the concert, that tie is literal, with the two ensembles and their distinctly different repertoires bookending the set from Holiday.

“Since John does both classical music at the highest level and jazz at the highest level, it seemed like a great idea to have him as the pivot point between the New Music Ensemble and the jazz,” Pertl said.










Brian Pertl: “It’s really an amazing thing, and it changes our students.”

Music Tour With a Mission

The underlying tone of the Presto! Houston tour — music with a purpose — speaks to the direction the conservatory has taken since Pertl arrived in 2008. From the Music for All series that takes live performances into spaces that rarely experience such things to ongoing ensemble performances in a nearby prison, the conservatory has put an emphasis on community outreach and positivity.

The Lawrence Conservatory education is deep, focused on bringing students to the highest level of musicianship, but the education doesn’t stop there. Lawrence is also focused on how music can positively impact society. That’s something that separates Lawrence from other conservatories, and people are taking notice.

“A blog that came out last year on musicschoolcentral.com was all about Lawrence and it was titled, ‘Is this the world’s most socially conscious music school?’” Pertl said. “Yes, we are. I’ll take that headline any day.”

More on ensembles on Presto tour: New MusicJazz

When monies donated three years ago by Lawrence alumnus Tom Hurvis ’60 and his foundation made the annual tour possible — the original commitment was for three years but that has now been extended to at least five — Pertl and his faculty set out to create a touring experience that would be substantive and heartfelt for not only the students but the community to which they would be reaching out.

“The vision we wanted to explore, which nobody really had done, is integrating high-level performance experiences with deeply meaningful community collaborations,” Pertl said. “How can a tour impact a place positively? How can we form meaningful collaborations with organizations so both parties feel like it’s an incredible, positive experience?”

Getting creative in Houston

The Lawrence contingent will try to do just that in Houston, most notably with Workshop Houston, an after-school organization that has programs in Houston’s Third Ward that range from fashion design to dance to music. The students who gather in the music spaces work on computers to create electronic beats.

Workshop Houston officials have been sending tracks their students created to Lawrence. Conservatory professors Jose Encarnacion and Patty Darling and their jazz students have been listening to them and are preparing to collaborate with the young artists when they get to Houston, mixing live playing with the electronic beats to create new music.

“So, improvisation, creating riffs and music over the top, and then at the end of the two days there will be a concert featuring the students from Workshop Houston and Lawrence,” Pertl said.

The key is the collaboration — honing and developing skills and finding the joy in creating something together, said Betsy Kowal, who is helping to facilitate the trip for Lawrence.

Workshop Houston originally opened as a bike repair shop where kids could go after school to work on their bikes. It has evolved over the past 15 years into a multi-tiered program drawing students between sixth and 12th grades interested in a range of arts and academic activities.

Deidra Motton, the community liaison at Workshop Houston, said there are 25 to 30 students who regularly work on music in the organization’s Beat Shop. The five or six students who are the most deeply involved in exploring electronic music will be the ones partnering with the Lawrence contingent in creating new music that melds the computer-generated beats with the live performance.

“This is very new to us,” Motton said. “I just love to see these two worlds collide. It seems like Lawrence is very focused on the classical aspects of music composition and performance, and our students are really digging into the whole programming aspect. I’ve never seen a program merge those two worlds quite like this, so I’m really excited.”

Meanwhile, the outreach with students at Scarborough Elementary School is being facilitated, in part, by Craig Hauschildt, a Lawrence alumnus who is an arts integration specialist in Houston. The goal during the three-day residency in the school is to use music to teach skills that can be used long after the Lawrence students have departed, including preparing the young students for success in their state standardized testing.

“When we design our community engagement residencies, we’re always asking ourselves, how can this residency serve the mission of our partner and benefit their organization in the long run?” Kowal said.

Lessons learned in Minneapolis and Chicago will be applied to Houston. That includes a focus on those lasting impacts. Appleton is 1,200 miles from Houston, so a return visit isn’t realistic. But how can the work being done on this tour pay dividends going forward?

“Each year brings a new understanding of how this project can grow and develop,” Kowal said. “We’re constantly learning as we go, and it’s an ever-evolving understanding.”

The results thus far have been positive, Pertl said, if for no other reason than showing conservatory students in a very real way the power of music and how it can change someone’s world. In a survey following last year’s Chicago tour, 65 percent of the students who participated said their vision of what they wanted to do with music changed because of their Presto! experience.

“It’s really an amazing thing, and it changes our students,” Pertl said. “I love to see that. That’s a lot better than just going on tour and the thing you remember is going out to Denny’s at 1 in the morning.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Much-anticipated performance of Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ ready to open

Lawrence Opera Theatre’s presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” runs from Thursday through Sunday at Stansbury Theater. Here’s what you need to know before you go. Tickets are available via the Lawrence Box Office

Image from video interview with Robert SchleiferA Lawrence University production of Leonard Bernstein’s highly acclaimed “Mass” will be staged this week with a significant twist.

The much-anticipated production by Lawrence’s Opera Theatre Ensemble, led by Copeland Woodruff, the award-winning Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music at Lawrence, will incorporate a Deaf character played by professional Deaf actor Robert Schleifer.

“My inspiration was two-fold — the obvious metaphor of our current society, where people have a difficult time listening to one another, and the inclusion of community members who might not necessarily attend an opera,” Woodruff said.

American Sign Language (ASL) and Pidgin Signed English (PSE) will be used throughout the production. Twenty-one members of the student ensemble have spent weeks learning to communicate in sign language.

There’s a lot to unpack with this production, opening Thursday (Feb. 14) and running through Sunday (Feb. 17) at Lawrence’s Stansbury Theater.

A cast member gets makeup applied before rehearsal.
Actors prepare for Tuesday’s dress rehearsal of “Mass.”

First, there’s the staging of a production as wide-ranging as “Mass,” which was both acclaimed and controversial when it debuted in 1971 and is being presented now as part of the world-wide celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

Woodruff and his ensemble are collaborating with members of two local children’s choirs to reimagine Mass, structured like a Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass but mixing sacred and secular texts and music. The celebrant leads the ceremony, and the Deaf character is the voice of the congregation challenging the celebrant. They argue and search for answers to universal questions together—their diversity highlighted by an eclectic blend of blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway, jazz, hymnal, Middle Eastern dance and orchestral music. Ultimately, they affirm the value of faith and hope for peace.

“Distinctive productions like Mass provide students with a rich educational opportunity to practice being a singer-actor, hone full-bodied communication skills, as well as develop appreciation and respect for the experience of others,” Woodruff said. “We hope that students will learn that the arts can be a powerful vehicle for personal and societal awareness and change.”

Actors on stage use sign language during dress rehearsal.
Sign language is used in real time throughout the production.

That speaks to the addition of Schleifer’s Deaf character, a statement on the difficulties we have in communicating when ideological differences come between us, be it political, religious or otherwise. It’s also a nod to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities and the daily struggles they endure.

“The use of ASL and PSE underscores the struggle to communicate, particularly between Deaf and hearing communications and within the Deaf community itself,” Woodruff said.

Community connections

Woodruff has a track record of partnering with community groups to examine socially relevant issues through opera. Members of the production team hope Mass will reach more than 2,000 people in the Fox Valley, many of them from the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

“It is rare — even at the national level — for a signed opera to be produced and performed,” Woodruff said. “The majority of our area’s theater-going public would not ordinarily experience this type of performance. Mass will open dialogues about faith and inclusion to our community.”

Besides Schleifer, Kristine Orkin, a local interpreter for the Deaf, and two professional vocal/style specialists are participating in the production. Schleifer, along with Lawrence student performers, will sign most of the opera’s lyrics in real-time during the performance. Deaf audience members also will be able to read supertitles.

Lawrence student Erik Nordstrum, who shares the main role of the celebrant with Aria Minasian, said he has learned a lot about himself through his work on the production.

“Through working on this piece, I realized that I have not been listening to other people, or to myself, as intently or as consistently as I would like to, and that so many human failures stem from a failure to communicate,” he said.

Minasian, meanwhile, has taken lessons from members of the Deaf community she’s interacted with in the lead-up to the production.

“Learning about the Deaf community and applying it to the show has been awesome,” she said. “I’ve also found challenges with figuring out how to be a female celebrant in a Roman Catholic church setting. This show has a lot to unpack and many different ways it can be presented and interpreted, leaving a lot to the performers and production team.”

Religious conversations

Congregants from four Fox Cities faith communities have used this production of Mass as a vehicle to talk about how we communicate – or more likely, don’t communicate – when it comes to our differences.

“The Mass is this touchpoint for us,” said Linda Morgan-Clement, the Julie Esch Hurvis Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life at Lawrence.

Morgan-Clement’s office has been collaborating with Woodruff to bring together public conversations about Mass. She led a discussion at First Congregational United Church of Christ that included participants from that congregation as well as Memorial Presbyterian Church, First English Lutheran Church and the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was a chance to talk about our often jumbled and conflicting faith journeys and the barriers that keep us from communicating effectively. The arts — and in this case, Bernstein’s Mass — can be used to engage people in conversations they might not otherwise have.

“It gives people a touchpoint around which to come together,” Morgan-Clement said. “It’s not just let’s get together and talk about the ways we don’t talk.”

This production provides a plethora of jumping off points in that conversation.

There’s the modern music, the discord, the journey of doubt playing out on stage, all crashing into the deep traditions of a Catholic mass. It provides an avenue for discussion of our differences and our similarities.

“So, it opens up this moment in today’s time for people to talk about the ways in which we … are still being human together, sharing this earth, a lot of commonality in our emotional framework and the ways we operate,” Morgan-Clement said. “And in what ways do the symbols and the language get in our way of actually hearing each other?”

‘Touches my soul’

For Schleifer, the blending of opera with sign language is powerful and moving.

Robert Schleifer performs on stage during dress rehearsal.
Robert Schleifer performs in a dress rehearsal of “Mass.”

“My love of opera is longstanding, its visual language fascinating — depicted through conductor wand gyrations, the energetic dance of bodies fused with instruments in orchestral rhythms, singers’ storytelling through facial expression and movement and breathing strength — the power I see touches my soul,” he said.

Bernstein’s Mass – full title is Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers — debuted in 1971 after the famed composer was asked by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to compose a piece for the 1971 inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Seeing it unfold on an LU stage come Thursday night with sign language being incorporated throughout will be an emotional moment for Schleifer.

“Bernstein’s Mass project has been both a challenging and awesome experience,” he said, “from the sound of the music itself and the abstract concepts portrayed through tone and inflection, which I cannot hear, relying on facial and body cues, figuring how to match American Sign Language with operatic language, to the awesome collaboration with Copeland and Kris, who helped me understand the complexities of poetic language, appreciate the culture of opera, and together watch the beautiful magic unfold.”

On stage

What: Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14 through Saturday, Feb. 16; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17

Where: Stansbury Theater, Lawrence University, Appleton

Cost: $15 ($8 for seniors and non-LU students; free for LU students and staff)

Contact: 920-832-6749,  boxoffice@lawrence.edu, or buy online