The last thing an orchestra musician expects to do is memorize music — that's for soloists. And even if orchestral members had reason to learn every note of a piece by heart, they wouldn't expect to dance around a stage while playing.
Unless they happen to be in the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble very much open to trying cool new things.
One of the coolest is a project that debuted in 2012, when the orchestra performed Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" from memory while carrying out movements designed by celebrated Baltimore-based choreographer Liz Lerman. (There's a souvenir on YouTube.)
This weekend sees the follow-up to that pathbreaking venture in College Park — an interpretation of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring."
"It's 25 minutes long, twice as long as the Debussy," says violinist Sarah York, a Maryland graduate student from Mount Airy. "And it has a lot of complex meter changes. You can't just memorize your part. You really have to memorize everyone else's, too. You need a whole different understanding of the score to do this."
Becoming thoroughly at home with the music is just the first step. Actual steps are next.
With no chairs or music stands and no conductor, the 50 or so musicians will move about the stage as they perform. (Cellists, who ordinarily anchor their instruments to the floor, will use a baby carrier-like strap invented by one of the players.)
"They are in motion all the time," says James Ross, director of orchestral activities at Maryland. "You will see people who are embodying the music and expressing what it means in a very natural way."
The project is the brainchild of Ross and Lerman, a Maryland alum who founded and, for 34 years, directed the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
"You have to get musicians to engage with their arms and torsos," she says. "You try to help them discover possibilities in movements they inherently make."
Many orchestral musicians, especially in this country, tend to restrain their gestures when they are in their chairs for concerts. They can look awfully rigid.
"I have worked for years trying to be less tense," York says. "Being involved with this project really frees up your body."
Once the instrumentalists feel free, they have to learn to function like a cohesive ballet corps. In this case, they will not be recreating the original 1944 ballet "Appalachian Spring" created by legendary dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, a version that conjures up images of American pioneer life.
"The first time I went to see it, I was disappointed because Graham's choreography was so spare," Lerman says, "and I had all these deep emotions about the music."
Given the chance to fashion her own concept for the Maryland project, Lerman first tried fashioning a theme about marriage equality — "“That was a total failure," she says with a laugh — before settling on a non-narrative approach inspired by the old-giving-way-to-new aspect of spring.
Every step of the way, Lerman encouraged the students to collaborate in the creative process.
"I told them this will not be successful unless they brought their own ideas to it," she says. "They jumped right in."
For York, the whole process — memorizing music, participating in the creation of the choreography, learning the moves — has been worthwhile.
"It sounded kind of insane at first, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it," the violinist says. "And I was surprised at how easy it came together. It hasn't felt scary at all. I feel privileged to be involved."
"Appalachian Spring" will be performed at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Clarice Smith Center on a UMD Symphony Orchestra program that also offers (non-memorized, non-danced) works by Dutilleux and Gershwin. There will be also be a preview performance at 8 p.m. Friday as part of a UMD Wind Orchestra concert.