Bright lights, big sound

Shepherd School composition students use Rice Stadium for socially distanced concert of works written during the pandemic


Live concerts with in-person audiences have been practically nonexistent over the past year, but after months of planning and practice, Rice Shepherd School of Music composition students presented five unique works written during the COVID-19 pandemic at a March 21 concert.

The venue was unique, too. Instead of the familiar surroundings of Stude Concert Hall, the students used a space typically suited for sports rather than symphonies: Rice Stadium.

"During the pandemic, music performance opportunities have been few and far between," said Karim Al-Zand, a Shepherd School professor of composition who came up with the idea for the event. "We were trying to find an opportunity for our composers and our performers to get together in a large group, and one of the things that made sense was to perform in a very large venue. Of course we have this stadium here, which is just enormous. And we figured we would try to put on a concert here."

Performing in a stadium instead of a concert hall put the skills of the student composers to the test as they created site-specific works suited for a stadium.

Back in the fall, Shepherd School composition students Nicky Sohn, Grace Ann Lee, Alex Moreno, Jake Sandridge and Daniel Leibovic visited the stadium to get a feel for the space and better understand what type of compositions might work. They also tested the acoustics in the large facility.

"There was a significant delay," Leibovic said of the sound traveling through Rice stadium, something he and his fellow composers had to account for as they composed their music.

"Some of us wanted to write pieces that didn't rely so much on strict rhythmic grids," he said. "The more flexible the piece, the better out here."

"In a space like this, the music is important but logistics are almost as important," Al-Zand added. He said details, such as the performers closely following the conductor despite hearing the delayed sound of their neighbors, were especially critical.

Jerry Hou, associate conductor for ensembles at the Shepherd School, directed the brass and percussion students performing the new music. He used a huge lighted wand — similar to what aircraft marshallers use around runways — so all performers in the stadium could easily see him. He called it "quite something" that the concert came together so well.

"It's been a year since everything shut down, and you feel like a rebirth is coming with this ambitious project that paired the composition department and composers with the Shepherd School performers," he said. "It was quite a feat to bring it together."

For Al-Zand, the virtual concerts born of necessity during the pandemic are no substitute for musicians playing together in the same place.

"We've had a lot of online versions of musical events but really nothing compares to being in person, even if it's in a huge stadium like this," he said. "It was a really special thing for us to be able to get together with everybody across departments, and feel each other's presence and feel the music and hear the music in real time. That was so special for us and it hasn't happened very often, unfortunately, but we were glad we were able to do it here."

For more information on the Shepherd School's composition program, visit