Centennial Gala in review: world-premiere of alumni compositions

Five pieces were performed for the first time, event planning detracted from Gala experience

The Rococo String Quartet performed amidst alumni art in the Foster Gallery.

Photo by Lara Bockenstedt

The Rococo String Quartet performed amidst alumni art in the Foster Gallery.

A once-in-a-lifetime celebration of art took place in Haas Fine Arts Center on Saturday, Oct. 8, allowing composers to divulge new creations. The event was a success in a number of ways but unfortunately disorganized in others.  

The Centennial Gala featured the world premiere of five musical pieces, as well as a theater department costume display and an exhibition of alumni art.

UW-Eau Claire’s Symphony Orchestra, Concert Choir, Jazz Ensemble I, L.E. Phillips Quartet and Wind Symphony each performed one piece reminiscent of 1916-era music and another commissioned within the past year from Blugold alumni.

While ticket-holders had the opportunity to roam the Haas lobby, small ensembles performed from the second floor overlook and within Foster Gallery.

Dr. Frank Watkins, conductor of the concert choir, said getting to meet the composers and asking questions about the music was a good opportunity, one students enjoyed.

“One thing about Eau Claire is we have amazing groups,” he said. “I mean they’re all great and we’re here to support one another, so it’s great to hear them and see them in their element performing tonight.”

Each group played their strengths with soaring sopranos from the concert choir in “Vespers, Op. 37,” precision in University Symphony Orchestra’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” and tumultuous effects in the Symphonic Band’s endeavor of “Land of Blugold.”

Jeremy Jenkins, a 2015 graduate, composed “Track Changes” for the L.E. Phillips Quartet. He said Department Chair Alan Rieck approached him around a year ago with the idea of writing for the quartet.

“I was given free range for the piece,” Jenkins said. “I know all the composers, including myself, tried to make it connect in some way to the school.”

Former Eau Claire theater professor Will Denson and alumna Laila Robins, who went on to star in both Broadway and film, exuded their long-time friendship as emcees.

Their banter was warm and humorous with references to shows they had worked on together. However, Denson later joked about a modern-day lack of decency.

He and Robins talked about how they hope the university will progress one hundred years from now in the modesty of attire students decide to wear, punctuated with a stark comment about girls and short skirts.

“Decency,” he said, referencing how campus dress used to be. “It was all about decency.”   

The potentially sexist commentary didn’t make for good taste, but Denson also pointed to the university’s success.

“You know what I hope doesn’t change?” Denson said. “The outstanding teachers and students and faculty who come to Eau Claire.”

Despite the event’s success, there were some areas where planning lacked in execution.

For having two venerated emcees of Eau Claire’s theatre department, their department’s contribution was poorly executed. Attendees were confused by the costume display location, said Usher Olivia Knutson. Costumed characters in the lobby appeared disconnected from the crowd.

Tickets were a spare $40 apiece and current students were difficult to spot in the crowd. As an event commemorating student work, the planners didn’t do a good job including current students, Knutson said.  

For better or for worse, the Gala catered to older alumni and faculty.

However, the effect of older music, paired with fresh compositions and accented by displays of alumni art, illustrated Eau Claire’s past and current talent.

“It was really inspirational to think about a hundred years,” Watkins said, “and have this moment to culminate what happened before and look towards the future.”