Rising to the Occasion


by Julian Zeng


An orchestra isn’t quite itself without the full strength of its individual parts. An instrumental solo may sound beautiful on its own, but with the contrast of an accompanying symphony, it can sing with a rich harmony.

The same can be said for the Music Conservatory and Theatre Conservatory of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA).

Soloist Winston Choi, head of CCPA’s piano program

The students in each institution put on more than 200 music and theatre performances each year, but only once do they get to combine forces on the Auditorium Theatre stage for an unforgettable display of their talents.

The results are — ahem — vivid.

VIVID 2018, CCPA’s annual showcase of students from its music and theatre conservatories, awed its audience with a rousing show on March 14 in the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. The performance marked the 150th and 20th anniversaries of its Music and Theatre conservatories, respectively, a tribute to the precursors of CCPA, neé Chicago Musical College, and a selection of thrilling musical theatre numbers from some past favorite shows.

“VIVID was a great opportunity to invite the greater Chicago community to see a fabulous showcase of CCPA students. We not only showcased their talent, but were able to raise significant scholarship support from audience members who were inspired by what they saw,” said Carolyn Bernstein, CCPA’s senior director of development.

“It was wonderful. I get to see the Theatre Conservatory every once in a while, but to see it in that kind of a spotlight and everyone rising to the occasion, it was fantastic,” said Winston Choi, head of CCPA’s piano program, who performed as a soloist with the CCPA Chamber Orchestra.

Led by guest conductor Andrew Grams, Choi and the CCPA Orchestra kicked off VIVID by performing composer Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 23, preceded by Leonard Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town” and “Trilogy,” the world premiere of the work by CCPA Student Composition winner Mitch Weakley (MM, ’18).

MacDowell’s piano concerto was selected because it was a piece championed by the president of the former Chicago Musical College, Rudolph Ganz, the namesake of Roosevelt’s prized performance venue, Ganz Hall. It was a concerted effort for the first half of the VIVID program to be works by American composers. “It made sense to present the piece, an American work, championed by our predecessor,” Choi said.

Choi took great pleasure from working with the students in the context of being a soloist, as well as attending rehearsals and the final performance.

CCPA Chamber Orchestra led by Andrew Grams

CCPA Chamber Orchestra led by Andrew Grams

“Just to see them all together with this energy, I thought they brought their A-game,” Choi said. “I don’t think anyone went into it with a sense of fear, just an alertness and excitement. And to get a chance to work with a conductor I admire very much and with the students, it was a blessing.”

Following the piano concerto came a performance of Weakley’s piece, “Trilogy,” fully fleshed out for an orchestra as opposed to the small six-person ensemble piece he originally produced.

“The material and ideas were so strong,” Choi said. “That’s always very satisfying, to take something that exists and blow it up into a much more robust piece. If you write something in that size and scope just for the sake of doing it, it’s not the same as taking advantage of a full orchestra.”

After an intermission, musical theatre students took the stage to perform numbers from a selection of popular works that were previously put on at CCPA’s many venues, such as the O’Malley Theatre, Yolanda Miller Studio Theatre and more. The Theatre Conservatory presented it as a 20–year retrospective of song and dance, directed and choreographed by Jane Lanier, head of CCPA’s musical theatre – dance concentration.

“It was wonderful. I get to see the Theatre Conservatory every once in a while, but to see it in that kind of a spotlight and everyone rising to the occasion, it was fantastic”

-Winston Choi
Head of CCPA’s Piano Program

Lanier chose fun numbers of varying styles and sizes and cited having the services of the CCPA student jazz ensemble during rehearsals as a key factor in nailing the final songs.

“With the whole band set up, plus 29 performers, it was a little crowded,” Lanier said, laughing. “But for those students to hear them play, the energy level just bumped up — that was a really great experience. I think [everyone] who played had a really great time playing. It was heaven.”

Lanier, who earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, admitted she had never attended VIVID before because of rehearsal schedules. Now that she finally got the chance, she was blown away.

“It’s so lovely for our conservatories to get together on the same program with amazing pieces,” Lanier said. “That was a gift, I think it was really special for everyone.”

“Certainly, the attendance among faculty is greater than any other event,” Choi added. “I think it becomes an event that rallies a lot of people together. As a faculty member, to see so many of my colleagues in one place, it’s great. And among the students, between the two conservatories, it certainly is a special event in everyone’s eyes, that they make the extra effort to support one another.”

“It’s so lovely for our conservatories to get together on the same program with amazing pieces. That was a gift, I think it was really special for everyone.”

– Jane Lanier
Head of CCPA’s Musical Theater – Dance Concentration

Full Company

In fact, a little under 1,200 people attended VIVID 2018, marking one of the largest-ever crowds at the event. Many of those were on hand to see Merle Dandridge receive CCPA’s inaugural Distinguished Artist Award. Star of Oprah Winfrey Network’s hit TV drama series, Greenleaf, Dandridge is a 1998 graduate of Roosevelt’s theatre program and an accomplished Broadway and television actor.

To the organizers of VIVID, the decision to award her with this CCPA distinction made perfect sense.

“She fully exemplifies the mission of Roosevelt, including the fact that she works to help underserved communities in the Los Angeles area,” Bernstein said. “She was a very powerful presence at the event and spoke about the impact her CCPA education had on her and on the trajectory of her career.”

The day after VIVID, Dandridge spent over an hour and a half speaking candidly with CCPA students in the O’Malley Theatre about her career and life lessons learned along the way. As a woman and person of color, Dandridge shared the struggles of constantly hearing “no” in auditions and being told she doesn’t embody certain characteristics as much as desired.

The talk was equally as impactful to the students as it was to the faculty, according to Lanier, and many tears were shed.

“It hasn’t always been an easy path for her, so it was great for the students to hear from someone who learned at CCPA and went out and worked and worked to get to where she is now,” Lanier said. “To hear the work that it takes, besides from us — [the students] get used to us after a while — it was nice to have a new voice. She was very inspiring to them, it was lovely. She opened her heart and gave to these kids.”

A pre-show Gala and reception, during which Dandridge made her appearance, was also a main opportunity for CCPA fundraising efforts, of which 100 percent of the proceeds went to student scholarships. VIVID is free for the public to attend, so fundraising is instrumental to the success of the event. Because so many members of the CCPA community gave their time and energy, this year’s VIVID Gala raised the largest amount to date, Bernstein stated.

Each year, Faleesa Square, a community organizer in the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Patrol, also arranges for large groups of children from community organizations, churches, boys and girls clubs, and Boy and Girl Scouts groups to attend the show, another way Roosevelt helps to reach out to broader communities to offer free performing arts experiences.

“Our audiences, speaking for the Theatre Conservatory, are mainly other students, families and friends — sometimes we get some outside people,” Lanier said. “But it’s so nice to get to perform for 1,200 people, it’s huge. This is an opportunity that I hope [the students] get more from in the future, in their professional lives. It’s great to get a taste of that here.”

Meanwhile, planning for next year’s VIVID performance is already underway. Choi says this type of show is not only a culmination of many months of student rehearsal and performance, but a crucial marketing tool to prospective students across the country.

“The arts are such an amazing thing that can bring people together and they’re already marginalized,” Choi said. “The more people can see that these are like-minded people, practicing different repertoire, the better for them.

“[VIVID] was such a source of pride for me,” Choi said. “I am thrilled to be working at a place that produces all of this.”

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