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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at President’s Holiday Concert

Category: Regional
December, 2017
EMPAC Concert Hall

President’s Holiday Concert

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, to the magnificent Concert Hall of our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, for our annual holiday concert.

This is one of the most advanced performing arts centers in the world, as well as a laboratory for research into perception and human/digital interaction at human scale. Our program today will make brilliant use of the remarkable multimedia capabilities—and astonishing acoustics—of this platform.

All of us are in for a treat! We are not about to hear a traditional concert. We are about to see a new adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play Peer Gynt, published in 1867, which includes the inspired incidental music composed for its first performance in 1876 by Edvard Grieg. “Incidental music” is music designed to enhance a non-musical medium. But in this case, the Grieg score is so magnificent, it surpasses its secondary role.

We often speak here of our vision for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as The New Polytechnic, a crossroads for sprawling collaborations focused on greatest of challenges.

Surely, Peer Gynt, a five-act play in verse that ranges from realism to surrealism, and that begins in Norway and then encompasses wanderings all over the world, is one of the great challenges of the theater—such a violation of the three classical dramatic unities of action, time, and place that it stretched the boundaries of the stagecraft of its time. The idea of the classical unities dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The idea is that a play should have a single unified plot, a single geographic setting, and take place in a short span of time. Obviously, a play based on these unities is easier to stage.

Our remarkable EMPAC, however, with its immersive technologies, now allows artists to transcend the limitations imposed by the physical world. Theatrical works such as Peer Gynt that once provoked the question, “Can it be staged?” now provoke the much more interesting question of "How will we stage it?"

Here at The New Polytechnic, a marvelous group of collaborators—across generations, disciplines, and sectors—has answered that question brilliantly.

This adaptation showcases our increasingly influential and powerful Department of the Arts at Rensselaer, the first such department to focus on the integrated electronic arts in the United States. Our program tonight has been led by three faculty members:

  • Senior Lecturer Dr. Nicholas DeMaison, a conductor and composer, who served as music director;
  • Professor Rebecca Rouse, an expert in digital media and theater, who served as director; and
  • Lecturer Mr. Jefferson Kielwagen, an artist and art historian, who oversaw the theatrical design.

Their adaptation engages an array of artistic and technical talents among our students—including the musicians in the Rensselaer Orchestra and Rensselaer Concert Choir; the sculpture students of Mr. Kielwagen, who designed some utterly remarkable puppets; and the members of our student theater group The RPI Players, whose roles range from narration to lighting, to operating the puppets, props, and scenery, sometimes with live video projection.

As you listen to our students play Grieg’s wonderful music, it will be readily apparent why Rensselaer has created a new Bachelor of Science degree program in Music: So many of our students intend to make music—and to shape the future of music in 21st century professions, such as composition and sound design for virtual environments and interactive music over networks. We have begun admitting our first students for the inaugural year of the program next fall, and we expect a number of our current students to take on Music as dual major.

The musical talent at Rensselaer encompasses our staff, as well as students and faculty. Our wonderful soprano tonight, Ms. Kimberley Dolanski Osburn, is Manager of Operations and Administrative Services for the Rensselaer School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science. She has performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other distinguished orchestras and ensembles. We are, indeed, fortunate to have her as a member of the Rensselaer family.

I must thank the professional musicians who will join the Rensselaer Orchestra, including our teaching fellows. I also express gratitude to independent opera director, Mr. Doug Fitch, of the New York theater group Giants Are Small, for advising on the production. I must acknowledge, as well, the support of the Rensselaer Union for this production, and the student clubs that have made it possible. I always thank Dean Mary Simoni of the Rensselaer School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences for the leadership that fosters such ambitious productions.

Now, I wish all of you the happiest of holiday seasons, and I hope you enjoy the delightful multimedia adventure that is Peer Gynt here at Rensselaer.