John Frayne | Three cheers for Central Illinois Youth Orchestra concert

John Frayne | Three cheers for Central Illinois Youth Orchestra concert

The East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra, conducted by Kevin Kelly, gave its spring concert in the Foellinger Great Hall on May 20. This youth orchestra, under Kelly's firm and encouraging beat, played eight pieces, in various moods, displaying a highly praiseworthy level of musicianship and technical achievement. This ensemble is a program of the Conservatory of Central Illinois.

The program opened with a bang, as the orchestra members launched into Leonard Bernstein's ever-popular overture to "Candide." The brass played with snap, the woodwinds sparkled along, and the strings sang sweetly the big tune.

The mood changed in the second piece, the not often played 1944 "Letter from Home," by Aaron Copland. In such pieces as this, Copland in the 1940s and 1950s proved himself the bard of "white-picket-fence" America. This piece features pellucid music for the strings, and in the warm, emotive melodies the ECIYO players conveyed the nostalgia a soldier might have felt upon receiving such a letter.

After the largely quiet Copland, another reflective piece followed, "Voyage" by John Corligliano, the only contemporary composer on the program. "Voyage," originally written for a capella chorus, was inspired by the famous poem "L'Invitation de Voyage," by Charles Baudelaire. Corigliano's 1976 music matches the mood of quiet exaltation in the poem, which ends with the famous, untranslatable line, "Luxe, calme, et volupté." At moments, near the end of "Voyage," I heard echoes of the string music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Each year, the Conservatory of Central Illinois sponsors a concerto competition, and the 2018 winner is Jenna Shin, who is a sixth-grader at Franklin STEAM Academy. She played the slow movement from Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, one of the most popular of the Romantic period concertos. Shin played the lovely melodies of Bruch with pure tone, delicate phrasing and unaffected emotional warmth. The applause that followed was one of the strongest of the evening.

An abbreviated version of George Gershwin's "American in Paris," arranged by John Whitney, brought the first part of the concert to an upbeat, jazzy finish, full of what Gershwin called "pep."

After intermission, before the music began, Kelly bade farewell to graduating members of the orchestra and announced the winners of various awards. Then Kelly led the orchestra through what was the most extensive work of the evening, Alan Hovhaness' 1955 Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain." The aura of mystery, of nature mysticism, of deep meditation, comes through clearly in this piece, only the second of a cavalcade of 67 numbered symphonies Hohvaness was to write before his death in 2000. The orchestra, led by Kelly, was especially impressive in the double fugue of the second movement, and, in the third movement, the horns, trumpets and tuba were outstanding.

After Hovhaness' serenity, the orchestra exploded in Charles Ives' "Variations on 'America,'" a good-natured sendup of what was then the U.S. de facto national anthem, known to generations of Americans as "My country 'tis of thee." Originally an 1891 organ piece, these variations have achieved considerable popularity through William Schuman's 1962 glittering orchestral transcription. The young players of the ECIYO dug into this work with joyous abandon, a mood brought to an even higher level of excitement in Morton Gould's 1942 "American Salute," his version of the folksong, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," a Civil War tune sung by both sides. It was a stirring sendoff for the student players heading off for the summer holiday, and the graduates going off to the next stage of their lives. The informative program notes for this concert were written by members of the orchestra.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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