The amps of varying sizes lined the back of the stage, microphones were poised in their stands awaiting singers, the drum set sat in the stillness, while the keyboard and synthesizer yearned for the touch of a pianist’s fingers. The house lights abruptly dimmed and the blues and reds illuminating the stage suddenly become apparent.
John Covach, a professor in the college music department, took the stage to introduce the Rock Repertory Ensemble for its first concert of the Spring semester, as a realization came to the forefront of the audience’s mind. A “rock” concert will be held in Lower Strong Auditorium — and all for class credit.
First, who knew UR even had a Rock Repertory Ensemble? Do ensembles that play upbeat music and aren’t a cappella groups even exist on this campus? Second, Lower Strong isn’t exactly a place most people would hand-pick to perform a rock concert in, especially since statistics classes are held there.
Yet, the Rock Repertory Ensemble managed this with style. It even made Lower Strong work as a venue because the interior probably hasn’t changed since the 70s, which is precisely the decade the group pulls most of its repertoire from.
With its geographical location literally underground, and that tweed-y, retro carpet-like upholstery lining the plastic framed auditorium seats, Lower Strong transported the audience back in time while the music did the same.
In his introductory remarks, Covach gave the group quite a compliment by saying it was, “the best group we’ve ever had,” and acknowledging the members’ hard work thus far this semester. Although it may sound like an easy gig at first, simply playing rock music in return for one credit hour, Covach explained how much effort the members really put into the course.
The purpose of Rock Repertory Ensemble, according to Covach, is to give students the opportunity to study music and the history of rock in a detailed way. However, unlike a classical music history course in which one can study string quartet scores by Beethoven, scores largely do not exist for rock music from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Rock Repertory Ensemble’s primary body of music.
Therefore, members have no transcriptions to reference so they must analytically listen to the music and decipher notation for themselves.
The transcription was excellent, as the songs sounded true to the originals and were just as entertaining to listen to. The program lasted about an hour and included favorites such as Heart’s “Barracuda,” Elton John’s “Your Song” and “Bennie and the Jets,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies,” among others. Judging by the body language and facial expressions of the musicians, all of them sincerely enjoyed the results of their labors.
The members certainly deserved their moment of glory, for many of the songs performed, while perhaps not always held in such high esteem as Beethoven’s string quartets, had very tricky musical moments. In particular, “Barracuda,” the end of “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of the Fifth” (by Genesis as well) all have rather rhythmically complex moments. Jarring juxtapositions between triple and duple meter could easily slip up any performer, yet Rock Repertory Ensemble maintained a tight tempo throughout.
Furthermore, vocals performed by the only two females in the group, Juniors Meghan Demirer and Jamie Wilson, were especially impressive. Each displayed wide belting ranges appropriate to the repertoire, while staying on pitch and showing off some spunk that helped give the show life and energy.
The male vocalists in the ensemble certainly had their moments to shine as well. In “Your Song,” Sophormore Michael Nagelberg made an impressive display on keyboards and vocals simultaneously that could have made any Elton John lover misty eyed.
However, the choice to perform this piece on keyboard rather than the baby grand piano present onstage seemed questionable. It was evident that Nagelberg had some trouble keeping the keyboard within his grasp on its rickety stand, and he undoubtedly could have drawn more character out of the piece on the baby grand, but perhaps the lack of amplification may have diminished the performance.
Vocalist Sophomore Brian Giacalone gave an earnest performance that enabled his pure and clear tone to glow in “Firth of Fifth.” While Giacalone let his singing voice do the talking, Sophomore Kyle Sanson worked the crowd with some choreography in “Watcher of the Skies” as he dramatically began the song with his back to the audience. He then gradually began moving his right leg in time to the music in a Saturday Night Fever fashion, then whipped around to face front and sing into the microphone on cue.
Other highlights included several flawless guitar solos executed by Junior JT Gaskill, particularly in “Long Distance Runaround,” “Roundabout,” and “Firth of Fifth,” and enthused performances by drummers Sophomore Jake Arthur and Junior Tom Krasner.
However, the most memorable part of the evening was when part of the ensemble performed “Smoke on the Water.” During the song, Arthur, Gaskill, Giacalone, and Sanson were joined onstage by Juniors bassist Jonathan Firestone and guitarist TJ Davison to fill out the orchestration.
It was clear to anyone watching that this was simply a bunch of boys, forgetting about their work and classes, having a jolly time pretending to be rock stars. It began with Arthur establishing a solid beat on the drum set, then progressed to Gaskill head-banging in time with the bass drum, and culminated in all members singing the lyrics, whether they had microphones or not.
Although audience attendance may have peaked at 25-30 people, Rock Repertory Ensemble delivered a quality performance that merits recognition. For a free concert, this was a bargain, and the ensemble deserves to receive the same amount of attention as some of the admission-charging ensembles on campus that deliver performances of the same musical value.
Dickerson is a member of the class of 2012.