Wharton Center: ‘Spectrum of the arts’


From full-scale symphonic splendor to smoking-hot, small-club-style jazz to acrobats teetering on towers of chairs, there’s no easy way to summarize the 2024-‘25 Wharton Center fine arts season, announced this week.

That’s the way Eric Olmscheid likes it.

Now entering his third year as the Wharton Center’s executive director, Olmscheid said the season “represents the broad spectrum of performing arts — classical music, jazz music, dance, global roots, variety acts and family programming.”

Scheduling a rare visit from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Oct. 17) with dynamic young violinist Randall Goosby took over a year of planning and negotiation.

“That’s a major, major programming deal for us,” Olmscheid said. “It is one of the world’s finest orchestras, and having that here, in a program I think will electrify our audiences, is going to be so great.”

Joining the London Philharmonic on the classical slate are the Detroit-based Sphinx Virtuosi (Feb.22), in a program of music by Black composers, and classical crossover ensemble Time for Three (Jan. 29).

Other big names include a pairing of two Grammy-winning jazz greats, vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist Bill Charlap (Oct. 4), Broadway, TV and (more recently) Tik-Tok star Mandy Patinkin (Oct. 22), human rhythm machine STOMP (Nov. 6-8) and retro-chic orchestra Pink Martini (Feb. 27).

“It’s the week of the election. Three performances of STOMP. Do with that what you want,” Olmscheid said with a sly smile before reverting to promotional mode. “It’s a show audiences love, and it’s so great to introduce young people to bigger scale, theatrical storytelling in that way, and it’s all nonverbal.”

Olmscheid compared programming the Wharton Center to concocting “a big recipe with a lot of ingredients.”

“When we’re looking at programming, we’re always interested in finding connections to the community and the campus,” Olmscheid said. “But also, what is going to be interesting, appealing, and also push boundaries a little bit?”

Some boundary-pushing spices in the recipe can be found among the eight musical and comedy events scheduled for appearances at Club 750, one of Olmscheid’s innovations as Wharton Center director.

Inspired by Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Club 750 transforms the glassy Jackson Lounge into a club-like space with table service, drinks and food.

“It gives us the ability to bring in artists that may not have the awareness or draw to be in a larger space, but also mirrors that club environment that people know and love in other communities,” Olmscheid said.

Two most notable are jazz-funk-metal-hip-hop fireball Cameron Graves (Oct. 31) and incandescent jazz trumpeter Brandon Woody (Feb. 5).

Another key ingredient in Olmscheid’s recipe is dance.

“We are really re-committing to dance as part of our performing arts series,” he said.

The visual splendor of MOMIX Alice (Jan. 31) recasts “Alice in Wonderland” as a fantasia of dance, acrobatics, mime, props and film. “Isotopes in Motion” (Nov. 14) marks the return of a unique partnership with the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. This massive particle physics facility does its mysterious work right next door to Wharton.

“Dance is the perfect medium for probing the fragmentation and collision of fundamental particles of the universe,” Olmscheid said. “We’re taking everything we did in 2022 to the next level.”

To crown the dance series, Olmscheid was delighted to snag Wharton’s first-ever visit from Ballet Biarritz (April 29) from Biarritz, France, led by artistic director and choreographer Thierry Malandain.

“That level of international notoriety is interesting for our community and, personally, one of the things I’m most excited about,” Olmscheid said. He’s seen the company several times and jumped at the chance to secure a date for their next tour, devoted to traditional and modern interpretations of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

“Their choreography is clear, distinct and beautiful,” Olmscheid said. “When they tour the U.S., it’s usually a quick in-and-out, and to grab one of those dates was really exciting for us.”

Regarding programming, Olmscheid is always looking for a local angle. The Sphinx Virtuosi is based in Detroit; the FRIB is right next door to Wharton. Luther S. Allison, music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center, coming March 25 with a New Orleans-themed show, has a master’s degree from MSU Jazz Studies.

The local connection will often be established when the artists visit a town. When negotiating with artists to book appearances, the Wharton team considers what they will do on stage and what they will do in community outreach and education. Out of the 29 performing arts and family shows on the schedule, 10 groups or performers are doing daytime field trip school matinee performances at Wharton. About 15,000 mid-Michigan students went to school matinee shows at Wharton in 2023.

“It’s not lesser quality performances,” Olmscheid said. “They are the same quality, high caliber performances on our main stage.”

While keeping an eye on local connections, Wharton remains committed to bringing the world to East Lansing. Besides high-profile world travelers like the London Philharmonic and Ballet Biarritz, the season includes wild-card dates like Mariachi Herencia dé Mexico, with a “totally different” holiday show Dec. 12.

“They’re credited with re-inventing the art form, bringing females into the ensemble in a way that wasn’t traditionally featuring female players,” Olmscheid said.

The Peking Acrobats, Feb. 25, bring jaw-dropping acrobatics, juggling old school razzle-dazzle with new tricks. (Among many other things, they’re famous for climbing onto precarious stacks of chairs in hair-raising configurations.)

Besides “STOMP”-ing through the election week, Wharton has tossed a few seasonal offerings into the recipe.  A pre-Halloween show Oct. 15 will mark the 49th anniversary (not the 50th — that would be too obvious) of the film “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Barry Bostwick, who played Brad Majors in the 1975 film, will narrate, and and a full  “shadow cast” will enact the film while it plays behind them.

Singer, actor, TV star and comedian Ana Gasteyer, best known for her work on Broadway and in TV shows like "People of Earth" and "Saturday Night Live," brings her "Sugar and Booze" holiday vibe to Wharton Center Dec. 10, two days before the Christmas-cactus concert by the Mariachi Herencia dé Mexico.

Olmscheid enjoys building a season recipe. The Wharton team is already working on programming big guns on the level of the London Philharmonic — organizations whose schedules are determined many months in advance — for the 2025-26 and 2026-27 seasons.

“It’s one of the first ingredients in the recipe,” he said. “You have to make an early commitment.”

It’s an abstract exercise in the early stages, but it gets real in the fall, with that tense, hopeful moment when your guests try out the soup. To complicate matters, fine arts attendance across the nation and at the Wharton Center is still “not quite where it was, pre-pandemic,” Olmscheid said.

“It’s always a gamble,” he mused. “These conversations started a year plus ago. What will resonate? How will audiences respond? We’re hopeful that the community is as excited for these shows to be right here as we are.”




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