New leader in place, UMS raises the baton for a new season


Ragmala Dance Company, Matthew VanBesien

Ragmala Dance Company's Written in Water sways into town Oct. 20. But new UMS president Matthew VanBesien is already in A2.

When the curtain rises on the new University Musical Society (UMS) season next month, for the first time in 30 years the venerable performing-arts presenting organization will do so with a new president. Matthew VanBesien comes to Ann Arbor from the presidency of the New York Philharmonic, but that’s not as big a leap as it might appear.

“I was born in the Midwest,” he explains during a recent interview. “I was definitely a product of good midwestern public school music education. I went to school at (Indiana University) for music. ... The times that I’ve been back in this part of the country, it always feels like home.

“Ann Arbor, of course, is a very special place. It’s hard to think of very many small cities in America that have the complete package the way this place does,” he adds. “I really value what’s here -- the environment, the spirit, the intellectual curiosity -- it’s terrific.”

VanBesien replaces Ken Fischer as just the seventh president in the organization’s 138-year history. Among other things, during Fischer’s tenure UMS became known for expanding education and outreach efforts, and that’s part of what appealed to VanBesien.

“I really loved the idea of coming to an educational environment,” says VanBesien, who engaged in such efforts himself during his time with the Philharmonic. “In the performing arts, we rightly are focused on quality and excellence in performance … but I personally believe we should be asking the question more often, how can we make a difference in the world?”

VanBesien speaks with appreciation of UMS’s residencies with major orchestras, dance troupes, and theater groups, and its work to engage students, U-M faculty, and the broader Southeast Michigan community, especially underserved groups. “I think these residencies can be expanded even further. Are there ways to engage parts of the community that have less access, geographically and socio-economically? We have the opportunity to build that into who we are,” he says.

When the Philharmonic came to Ann Arbor for a 2015 UMS residency, he recalls, in addition to main-stage concerts, “I was honestly as proud if not more proud of the 35 other things we did” -- master classes, visits to local youth orchestras, even a memorable halftime show at a U-M football game.

Theatre de la Ville, Butler, Bernstein, and The Hot 9

Theatre de la Ville's spooky L’État de siege (State of Siege) arrives Oct. 13-14. Butler, Bernstein, and The Hot 9 kick off UMS's new season on Sept. 8.

The UMS season gets under way next month, with tickets to individual events going on sale Monday, Aug. 7. Although the schedule was finalized long before VanBesien’s arrival, one of the standouts is another residency by the New York Philharmonic, this time honoring the legacy of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, set for Nov. 17-19.

Asked for some other highlights of the current season, VanBesien points to the “smaller, entrepreneurial, sometimes avant-garde” artists that UMS brings to town. “We don’t just give them a gig. We engage them in being able to do their best work here,” he says.

This season, that includes:

The Knights, Nov. 12, Rackham Auditorium: a “startup” from Brooklyn who “wanted to make good music but do it in a different way.”
➥ “No Safety Net: Theater for Unsafe Conversations in Safe Spaces,” Jan. 17-Feb. 4, a theater festival with specific titles to be announced. The plays will deal with core issues of our society, VanBesien says: “I think that’s an interesting direction for us longer term.”
➥ “Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation,” March 14 at the Michigan Theater -- “Thinking about the blues in a different kind of geography than people usually associate with that musical form,” VanBesien says.

Among some of the big names in the upcoming season:

Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet, Oct. 5 at Rackham Auditorium.
“Crosscurrents” with Zakir Hussain and Dave Holland, Nov. 1 at the Michigan Theater.
John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring, Nov. 15 at the Michigan Theater.
“Hair & Other Stories,” Urban Bush Women, Jan. 12 at the Power Center.
Maxim Vengerov, violin, and Roustem Saitkoulov, piano, Jan. 28 at Hill Auditorium.
American Ballet Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Feb. 8-11, at the Detroit Opera House.
Joshua Bell, violin, and Sam Haywood, piano, Feb. 10 at Hill Auditorium.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Chick Corea, March 31 at Hill Auditorium.
Murray Perahia, piano, April 22 at Hill Auditorium.

“It’s woven together with great care,” VanBesien says of the season schedule. Now, the UMS team is already deep into planning the schedule for the next season and beyond. “We’re talking about major projects two and three years out. Those things always have a longer lead time.

“We’re doing that work as we go, but we’ll also be talking intensely about what the next chapter for UMS looks like,” VanBesien says. “We need to figure out what more we can do. I love the broadening definition of what UMS is and can do and can be. We’re absolutely a great performing arts series, but I think ultimately on some level we need to think of ourselves as a platform for creativity, and creativity takes on many forms today.”


Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.


The University Musical Society season begins Sept. 8 with a concert by Butler, Bernstein & the Hot Nine. Tickets to individual events go on sale Monday, Aug. 7. For more information, visit ums.org/season.