Music: Now in Technicolor

Theater technician Jessica Solinsky gives the green light on Ultan Recital Hall’‘s new color-emitting LED spotlights, opening new creative avenues for future concerts.

by Joseph Kleinschmidt

Obsolete, energy-inefficient spotlights illuminated the stage of Ultan Recital Hall until this year. As theater technician and lighting designer Jessica Solinksy explained, the incandescent bulbs damaged more than the strained eyes of musicians. Heat from the antiquated lights roasted some of the instruments on stage.

“It ended up cooking the pianos,” she said. “It would just get so hot; the pianos would get out of tune and run out of water in their humidifiers — it just led to so many problems.”

Behind the spotlights of Ted Mann Concert Hall and the Ultan Recital Hall, Solinksy operates the eyes and ears of the lighting system for the University of Minnesota School of Music’s many concerts.

Two years ago, she spearheaded a project to replace the old incandescent lights with LED ones, funded by a College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology grant. A new computer system also replaced the former archaic one — a vital update, Solinksy explained.

“An Atari is more advanced than the control system they had,” she said. “In fact, the company that had made the dimming system doesn’t actually do theatrical lights anymore. They do street lights.”

Because of the old lights, an orange-yellow radiance appeared on many of the concert videos, reminiscent of a security camera or a home video, Solinsky said. Now, the improved LEDs cast clear beams of light. But Solinsky realizes she’s doing her job right if no one gives her any credit.

“If the lighting’s really good, no one should notice it,” she said. “It should add to the piece not take away from the piece.”

In the past, Solinsky’s guiding light has illuminated the likes of everything from Mystic Lake Casino stages to Aaron Copland performances to the recent concerts by the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus.

“It starts off kind of moody and dark, and then it builds as the piece itself builds,” she said of the Chorus’s lights. “All of the light cues are actually motivated by the music.”

The brand new LED lights from Gopher Stage Lighting also open up the chance for the classical musicians to experiment with color. The second half of violinist Hsuan-Wen Lin’s upcoming doctoral recital will feature the LED lights in full color.

“We’ve never lit the whole stage — it was always a limited sort of wash,” Solinksy said. “Now the entire stage can go blue or red or purple or green.”

The seven color LEDs can emit any tone in the visible spectrum, she explained. While the color transformation might not be as dramatic as the black and white to Technicolor transition in “The Wizard of Oz,” the lighting subtly underscores the music. The nuanced understanding of the emotional effect that the color adds to the music brings synesthetic effects instead of a full-fledged Pink Floyd laser show.

“I think it’s going to be gorgeous,” Solinsky said. “I know it’s going to be gorgeous because I’ve seen what the system can do.”


Hsuan-Wen Lin’s doctoral recital begins at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Ultan Recital Hall, with the second half of the concert featuring full-color LED lighting.