Episode 29: Talk about ‘music to your ears,’ featuring Eric Woodhams

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Episode 29: Eric Woodhams — “Talk about ‘music to your ears’”

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen in Michigan”, my guest is Eric Woodhams, senior manager of digital media at UMS, officially known as the University Musical Society. UMS is a revered institution among fans of classical music, jazz, chamber music, dance, and more. It’s one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the country, and hosts as many as 75 performances and more than 100 free educational activities each season. With Hill Auditorium as its home base, UMS has brought the most breathtaking array of artists to Ann Arbor since its debut in – get this – 1879. Famed opera singer Enrico Caruso has come to campus, as well as composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, dancer Merce Cunningham who performed with John Cage, American soprano Leontyne Price, big band leader Benny Goodman, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and so many others.

Now UMS is taking its rich history to the digital audio space via Spotify and Apple Music. My guest Eric is creating UMS playlists to keep fans – near and far – engaged with the kind of stellar content UMS presents. The initial lists showcase Chamber Arts, Jazz Masters and Piano Solos – so good. Going forward, Eric plans to ask musicians and other artists to curate their own lists to share with fans their personal favorites.

With 140 seasons to choose from, the range of artists and music should delight longtime UMS fans, casual listeners, and total newcomers. I love ’60s garage rock and here I am listening to Emerson String Quartet, Chick Corea, and a new group I’ve never before encountered: Snarky Puppy. Just go to UMS Rewind.org/playlists and check it out. But first, let’s hear from Eric. And a little of that Snarky Puppy…

Woodhams: So many amazing names in an array of genres. I mean from pianist Vladimir Ashkenazi, ensembles like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra has been here more than 50 times over the years, to famous french mime Marcel Marceau. I just saw his autograph actually on one of our walls the other day.

Holdship: Now that’s a recording we all need to hear!

Woodhams: Exactly! (laughs) Turn the sound up real high for that one!

Holdship: Oh my god that’s so funny. That’s weird. I didn’t know he was here.

Woodhams: Yep! On a number of occasions and the beauty is that we have our whole digitized archive of all of our past performances, all the program books for the performances, so you can see exactly what the repertoire was, who the artists were, and it’s open to the public. So you can just go to ums.org/rewind and you know, take a deep dive.

Holdship: I love that thing, all the photographs, all those programs. I was pretty excited when I got that email about the playlist, mostly because I thought “Oh my god they are going to have these amazing recordings!”

Woodhams: I know, and sadly that’s not the case. We actually don’t have a lot of archival recordings and it’s really difficult for us to do because a lot of our guest artists have contracts with record labels and stuff like that. And it’s great for them and great for us if they are coming here with things they’ve recorded because it helps us promote sales and helps the artist then promote sales after the fact. But, we are very limited usually in what we can record or distribute.

Holdship: Yeah.

Woodhams: But the beauty of the Spotify music playlist is everything is at your fingertips, of most recorded, commercially recorded, of all time. So it’s a great way for us to promote what’s coming up, take a look back at our history and all that stuff.

Holdship: So hopefully that will be good for people who are already UMS fans, I’m sure people will be thrilled. I mean have you gotten any feedback yet?

Woodhams: Oh yeah, people have been following, making sure to follow on Spotify and Apple Music so that they get the new updates. And we are planning on having new updates every week. Whether it’s updating an existing one with new content or adding a whole new playlist.

Holdship: Hmmkay. Based on the history of UMS, you obviously have a huge archive of artists to pull from.

Woodhams: 141 years. Yeah.

Holdship: 141 years that’s amazing. Such a tremendous legacy. Just professionalism and just the broad spectrum of talent that has come through here.

Umm so tell me about why you decided to do these playlists? Like what does this entail and what’s your plan?

Woodhams: I think there are a number of different reasons why we want to make UMS more of a curator role in the digital space. When I first started here last year, I was putting together a set of digital objectives for next year. I was asking myself, how can we more effectively introduce upcoming artists and events to our audiences and remove any barriers of unfamiliarity with them. How can we help resurface stories about amazing artists that have been part of our 141-year history? And tying this all together, how can we become a better destination for great entertainment off the stage, for the digital space. And so, playlists check all those boxes for me. Streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify are you know, I consider them modern encyclopedias for sound in a way and we can create a really accessible environment for listening and discovery for all of our audiences and followers.

Holdship: Well, I now know about Snarky Puppy which I never knew about before.

Woodhams: Yes, they are amazing!

Holdship: So they are coming, right?

Woodhams: They are coming. They are our season openers this year. Tickets for that will go on sale later this month. Coming up this season, there is an amazing jazz musician, I’ve seen his YouTube videos and listened to his new album. His name is Tarek Yamani. And he is Beirut born. He has this, he improvises and he makes the sound that combines classical American Jazz with traditional Arabic music. The harmonies are like nothing you have ever heard in your life.

Holdship: Amazing

Woodhams: He really breaks borders and barriers in the whole Jazz genre and I think he’s going to be one of the stars of the new season.

Holdship: Excellent! Well it’s very interesting too like you were saying the beautiful materials UMS puts out and I receive the catalog every season. But I do, I always feel kind of stupid. I don’t know who these people are, I don’t know what this sounds like. And it’s challenging to put down your money and buy a ticket for something, yes you’d like to educate yourself and expand your horizons, but now you have a place to go and listen to whose coming and decide now. Oh, yeah I’ll buy that ticket. You know? I think that’s really cool.

Woodhams: Exactly.

Holdship: So, why did you start with Chamber Music and Modern Jazz Masters. Those are the two lists that are up right now.

Woodhams: Yep! And we just added a third one yesterday which was Solo Piano.

Holdship: Oh great!

Woodhams: Which is great, but I wanted to start with those two playlists, Chamber Arts and Modern Jazz Masters, because I wanted to highlight the sheer diversity of sounds that we are presenting in our Chamber Arts and Jazz series over the next season. And really defy stereotypes of what these genres of music sound like in the year 2019.

Holdship: Okay.

Woodhams: Because Chamber Arts music is not just about hearing trios and quartets. It’s really about the art of performance, live performance, in an intimate space with one player to a part. And I think, I’m biased, but I think our Chamber Arts programming this season is really exceptional. We are presenting a modern interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, by a composer Max Richter and it’s kind of like baroque meets electronica. And if you are a fan of the Netflix show, series “Chef’s Table”, one of the movements from this recomposition is featured in the opening credits.

Holdship: Oh cool! Alright!

Woodhams: Pay attention next time you are watching!

Holdship: I will.

Woodhams: And another really interesting performance in this series is going to be a composers evening with a New York City-based sextet called Why Music. And this evening is celebrating some of America’s most talented and innovative young composers, most of whom are women.

Holdship: Oh, Right on!

Woodhams: Yeah so really innovative programming in the Chamber Arts series.

Holdship: Okay, so who are some of those women?

Woodhams: Caroline Shaw, and Missy Mizzoli and also Detroit based Sheranova.

Holdship: Okay, excellent!

Woodhams: Should be a wonderful performance.

Holdship: Okay so when you said stereotypes of Chamber Arts, like what are some of those stereotypes?

Woodhams: Oh well, I think the stereotypes would be just tuxes, old men.

Holdship: Very prim and proper?

Woodhams: Very prim, and a string quartet. We have some amazing string quartets coming as well. We have Emmerson String Quartet coming and they are always pushing the boundary of what they perform and them on the stage is always fresh and exciting programming as well.

Holdship: Good! And then the Modern Jazz Masters, who are some of those?

Woodhams: Our jazz series really crosses borders of instrumentation and inspiration and the debut of Beirut born pianist Tarek Yamani. I’m super excited about that program. I think the program with Chick Corea and his trio is going to be phenomenal. And we also have our wonderful celebration of the holidays with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz of Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Holdship: How fun! I mean, what a fun job you have! I noticed int he email you mentioned some guest-curated lists and what-not so who are you hoping to have do some guest curation?

Woodhams: I’m really excited for us to start monthly guest lists curated by some of our artists and also by notable figures from across the University of Michigan community. UMS presents more than a hundred free education and community engagement activities each year. And a lot of the time this involves partnership and connecting performances that are relevant programmatically with other departments at Michigan. This can be language arts and cultural studies, psychology, literature, certainly the campus museums and of course the School of Music, Theater and Dance. Among many others. But this partnership for the guest list is just another way for us to extend the reach and impact of our connections across campus.

Holdship: Yeah it’s a beautiful thing. You are hoping they will share this list, people will be turned on by the specific person who is curating the list, that will hopefully draw them in and maybe they explore other things.

Woodhams: Absolutely. And it’s an opportunity for those units on campus to share with their followers and raise awareness about our offerings as well. And then I also think of us, because we are in an academic institution, we need to provide safe spaces to listen to new concepts and ideas. And I think there’s a big opportunity to take advantage of this with our playlists. We are presenting a three week No Safety Net festival which is three weeks of provocative theater works that are at the intersections of art and contemporary political issues. Issues like online radicalization, the refugee crisis, white privilege, me too movement, and I would love for these festival guest artists to help curate playlists for us. And these safe listening environments to help us open up our ears to new perspectives and sounds.

Holdship: You’ve worked at the DSO and you’ve worked at Carnegie Hall, what do you think about Hill Auditorium and the sound experience there? And what would you tell people that haven’t been there before?

Woodhams: Oh, I think Hill Auditorium is a magical place and you can feel, just like Carnegie Hall, you can feel the history just by entering the Auditorium. Well, we present performances in many fantastic venues across the University of Michigan campus, but of course, the crown jewel is Hill Auditorium. Built in 1913, considered by many people one of the worlds best concert halls for its unique shape. Which is kind of the shape of a megaphone and I think that helps amplify the sound.

Holdship: Mmhmm, absolutely.

Woodhams: The Frieze Memorial Organ and its renowned acoustics, the clarity. You can hear a pin drop in it. The clarity and resonance you hear is pretty unbeatable for a hall of its size. It’s pretty big at about 3,500 seats.

Holdship: Oh I didn’t realize it’s that big.

Woodhams: It’s huge.

Holdship: It does not feel that big.

Woodhams: It doesn’t. It feels really intimate. And I think that’s because there’s not a terrible seat in the house and it sounds great everywhere. The sound carries beautifully to every place you can sit and I personally think some of the best sound is way up in the balcony. Which makes those seats truly an exceptional value, especially for students because tickets only start at $12 for them.

Holdship: Are there some real coveted performers, like real people you are dying to get your hands on and really promote. Like some artists we’ve had come through here or like many versions of orchestras. I don’t know. Anything you are really excited to get your hands around.

Woodhams: I’m really excited to share some of the historic moments of our catalog more than anything else. I mentioned we are so lucky to have digitized all of our program book materials going back through our entire history. And you know, the playlists and corresponding blog posts help us really unearth some of these amazing stories of our past and also connect us to current events in fun and interesting ways. For instance, in July we celebrate 50 years from the first moon landing in 1969 and we have created a whole blog and playlist that features ten moon inspired works that we’ve presented since the late 1800s.

Holdship: How great!

Woodhams: Yeah, and on the blog page you can even dive deeper and explore the individual programs or how many times each work has been presented over the course of the years. And this includes stuff from piano legends like Vladamir Ashkenazi to modern stars like Broadway’s Audra Mcdonald. Doing all this research, a couple tracks were familiar favorites like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but the vast majority were completely new to our ears and these were really incredible finds to be able to discover and share on the playlists.

Holdship: So fun! Yeah, I think it’s, I mean, for people who are not local anymore, I’m sure this will be exciting for them.

Woodhams: Exactly and even if you haven’t been here, connecting some of these iconic artists to us is just so heartwarming. Another wonderful story we are working on is the 100th anniversary of famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso’s 1919 debut at UMS. Which was delayed twice because of the flu pandemic after WWI. And we are so lucky here at U of M to have access to the digitized archives of the Michigan Daily Newspaper. So we have all these paper clippings from “Caruso was Cancelled” “Caruso is Coming Back!” and reviews and all of this. Combining that with playlists of his recordings and one of a kind voice just brings even more life and context to the story of the great lengths it took to finally get him here at Hill Auditorium.

Holdship: Yeah and that’s just one of about a million amazing stories that have happened. You can only imagine if that dressing room could talk. You know what I mean?

Woodhams: Exactly. If those walls could talk.

Holdship: There’s so much good stuff.

Woodhams: So UMS is one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the United States. It was founded in 1879. Which means we are heading into our 141st season now. Which is pretty remarkable. That means we are older than Carnegie Hall as a presenting institution. So UMS originally brought great orchestras and classical musicians and singers from all around the world to perform in Ann Arbor. A lot of people still think of us as just performing classical music but actually in the last few decades we’ve vastly expanded our repetiteur of what we present to include international jazz and world music, as well as theater and dance. And we present in theaters throughout campus and even some in Detroit next season.

Holdship: Great!

Woodhams: We present more than a hundred free educational and community engagement activities every year. These include things like K-12 school day performances, masterclasses, night school 101’s as we call them, and Q&A’s. We really aim to find ways of connecting our artists with audiences of all ages in special ways.

We know for so many of our singers and dance companies, and musicians who often give masterclasses at SMTD, I think the feeling is mutual that students love it so much, but also I think the artists really have such a great time being here at Michigan and are always impressed by the level of talent of our students.

Holdship: And then the quality of Hill. Just such an amazing place to perform. I don’t think anyone whose performed there has had a bad word to say about it. I mean, I think everyone’s in love with it

Woodhams: Especially the singers. There is kind of this renowned sweet spot on stage too that is on, if you look at where the piano lift is on the Hill Auditorium stage, on the sides of those there is a sweet spot and if a singer is directly singing from that point they can hear the way their voice resonates in the hall in such a special and powerful way. It’s truly incredible and it feels like you are speaking directly to the audience member in the last row of the balcony.

Holdship: That’s how it feels when you are in there. I love it. Oh, I did get to see Audra Mcdonald there. It was amazing.

Woodhams: She’s one of our favorites.

Holdship: She’s just fantastic, yeah beautiful. Then I also saw David Sedaris, not related to UMS but just the author speaking and again it was one of those deals if you had a question, you could almost ask your question in a normal speaking voice from the last row of the balcony and he could hear you.

Woodhams: In a crowd of 3,500 people. That’s amazing.

Holdship. Yeah! We are so lucky.

Woodhams: So our entire 2019-20 season is available to preview at UMS.org. Some important dates coming up; our public on-sale date for our season opener with Snarky Puppy is on July 25th and then our public single ticket day is on August 7th and student tickets will be available starting August 29th. And we also have a little known program that we are trying to make more known is called the Burt’s Ticket. That is a free UMS ticket for first and second-year University of Michigan students.

Holdship: So this is one way at least to get to them. Get to people where they live you know?

Woodhams: Exactly and UMS, we actually have one of the highest student attendance rates amongst our peers in university arts presenters. So all our information about that can be found at ums.org/students. But it’s really easy you can just buy your tickets online at any time!

Holdship: And then when you can’t come to a show you can just plug in your earbuds and turn up the volume.

Woodhams: Yep and hear a lot of the great music from our artists on stage!

Holdship: Perfect!

Thanks so much for listening. Now go to Spotify and Apple Music and get yourself some culture. And buy a UMS ticket next time you’re in Ann Arbor. You won’t be disappointed. OK, that’s it for now. You can find Listen in, Michigan at GooglePlay Music, I-Tunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. See you next month, and till then, Go Blue.

Ear-opening experience

The University Musical Society now offers playlists on Apple Music and Spotify. Eric Woodhams, UMS’ senior manager of digital strategy, says we’re in for some adventurous listening, amazing guest-curated tracks, and endless surprises from the UMS Rewind archives.

Woman in Nickels Arcade

A woman listens to a UMS playlist while shopping at Nickels Arcade. (Image: UMS.)

UMS is a revered institution among fans of classical music, jazz, chamber music, dance, and more. It’s one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the country, and hosts as many as 75 performances and more than 100 free educational activities each season. With Hill Auditorium as its home base, UMS has brought the most breathtaking array of artists to Ann Arbor since its debut in 1879. Famed opera singer Enrico Caruso has come to campus, as well as composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, dancer Merce Cunningham who performed with John Cage, American soprano Leontyne Price, mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, big band leader Benny Goodman, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and so many others.

Now UMS is taking its rich history to the digital audio space. Woodhams is creating UMS playlists (ums.org/playlists) to keep fans – near and far – engaged with the kind of stellar content UMS presents. The initial lists showcase Chamber Arts, Jazz Masters and Piano Solos – so good.

In July 2019, UMS even uploaded a playlist of “moon” compositions in honor of the 50th anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon. Going forward, Woodhams plans to ask musicians and other artists to curate their own lists to share with fans their personal favorites.

The artists featured in this episode (in order of appearance):


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