For one special night in November, Johnson Theater resonated with an orchestrated jazz/classical mix created by Mark Shilansky ’92, an artist in residence at UNH who also teaches at Berklee School of Music in Boston. For this Faculty Concert, Shilansky invited a cast of thousands, almost. The stage filled with about 40 musicians—10 faculty members, 7 or so featured artists, and 20 student musicians. The whole became the Shilansky Festival Orchestra, conducted by Lecturer David Upham and presided over by Shilansky on jazz piano.
Mark Shilansky ’92
Jon Garelick of the Boston Phoenix has aptly described Shilansky’s playing this way, “He knows how to make every moment engage … ” For this evening, he certainly did. His strategy was to play songs he knew everyone would love to perform.
“The tunes that Professor David Ripley sang, such as ‘If I’m Lucky,’ were prompted by our shared love of the vocalist Johnny Hartman,” says Shilansky.
For his wife, Kathleen Flynn, a soprano who mostly sings Wagner and Strauss, he chose songs that emphasized their mutual interest in Celtic music and art song. He notes, “I’d always wanted to do a jazz adaptation of Samuel Barber’s ‘Sure on this Shining Night,’ so this seemed like the time.”
Flynn also suggested that they do a French pop tune, “Si Tu N’existais Pas.” “She hipped me to that one,” says Shilansky. “It has a great arcing melody, very classical sounding to me, but also with a kind of kitschy arrangement. I was drawn to do that, too.”
Shilansky is a longtime collaborator with singer David Scott, a Berklee colleague. “With David in mind, I transcribed some songs by Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson,” he says. These selections included the Herb Alpert hit, “This Guy’s in Love with You” and Wilson’s haunting, “Don’t Talk (put your head on my shoulder).”
For jazz singer April Hall, Shilansky chose “God Give Me Strength” by Bacharach and Elvis Costello. “I knew she’d be one of the few performers who could sing those super-low and super-high notes,” says Shilansky.
Great solos studded each performance: Professor Dave Seiler on alto sax, Professor Robert Stibler on trumpet, Professor Nic Orovich on trombone, artist-in-residence Les Harris, Jr. on drums, and Eric Byers, another Berklee colleague, on guitar.
The evening’s finale, a Beatles medley of “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” brought out the fireworks. When mandolin player Joseph Brent and Sara Caswell, a jazz violinist who plays with renowned bassist Esperanza Spalding, took the stage they had music students in the audience practically jumping out of their seats.
And then high school student Aubrey Harris on electric bass found a great groove to cap off the evening. Harris is just off a Grammy Camp Kids performance with Keith Urban in Las Vegas. She’s also a four-year Summer Youth Music School (SYMS) alum.
Shilansky is also an alum of the SYMS program and went on to do his undergraduate work here at UNH from 1988 to 1992. He credits faculty members Christopher and Arlene Kies, David Seiler, and the late Paul Verrette for shaping much of his musicianship. As a jazz musician, Shilansky has developed a career playing major concerts all over the world, recording with major artists, and carrying on a high level of music education at local and national public schools and universities. “Many alumni have careers similar to mine,” says Shilansky. “It’s astounding to me the level of both jazz and classical musicians that consistently come out of this program. Dave Seiler spent his career building up a jazz program at UNH that should be the envy of any institution.”
For Jared Rocco ’14, who studies jazz piano, and Brian Fanning ’14, who studies oboe, the evening was great, and they loved the mix.
“We’re open-minded about jazz and classical,” says Fanning. “We’re music students!”
Rocco adds, “What’s amazing about this concert is that everyone showed up. I loved it. Of course, I’m a huge Beatles fan.”
Watch for this concert next year, which Shilansky has already started planning.
Meanwhile, great concerts are coming up and many, like the Faculty Concert Series, are free. Check out the monthly arts link on the UNH Homepage.
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