John Frayne: A fond, fitting farewell for an icon in the UI School of Music
On Oct. 21, a series of events occurred in memory of Thomas H. Schleis, who died July 18.
Tom, as he was universally known, was for more than a generation one of the most important persons associated with the Opera Program at the University of Illinois, as well as an influential vocal coach to a myriad of singers who has passed through the UI School of Music.
Earlier that day, a memorial Mass had been said for Mr. Schleis at St. John Catholic Newman Center Chapel, and later a memorial meeting there offered an opportunity to hear tributes and share memories of his life and achievements.
The memorial concert on Sunday evening in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was the grandest event I have ever attended in that concert hall — or any other for that matter.
By my reckoning, 402 performers took part, of which 297 were members of various choruses, 80 were instrumentalists in the UI Symphony Orchestra and 25 were listed as soloists, either vocal or instrumental. Add to these impressive numbers choral directors and conductors, and you have an extraordinary concentration of musical talent, and an unforgettable show of appreciation to Mr. Schleis for his long years of service to the young musicians of this university.
The evening began with a video of him relating his development as a musician from his earliest years, his activities at the UI and ending up playing a major role in the opera program's productions.
He also offered some remarks on the training of young singers, and the need of them to be familiar with the great voices of the past. Mr. Schleis was famous for his wit, gentle at times, and razor sharp at other times, and by the end of his narration there were flashes of his more acerbic side. The master of ceremony was theater Professor Henson Keyes, who shared his memories of working with Mr. Schleis, including his friend's opinion of a notably shrill singer: "A voice like that could kill a bowl full of goldfishes."
To describe in detail the performances of music by 15 composers would be beyond the limits of this article. Giuseppe Verdi came in first with three selections, followed by Leonard Bernstein with two, one encored. The evening began with the solemn and slow "Almighty Father" from Bernstein's Mass sung by the UI Chorale, the Varsity Men's Glee Club, the Womens's Glee Club, the Oratorio Society and the UI Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eduardo Diazmunoz, who organized the entire event. Then followed a dramatic and rousing playing of the overture to Verdi's opera "La Forza del Destino" by the UI Symphony, conducted by Donald Schleicher.
After the overture a series of choral performances followed. "Sinfonia Parting Song" was sung by the Alpha Xi Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, conducted by Gregory Rife. The Women's Glee Club, led by Andrea Solya, offered a luminous account of "Laudi alla Vergine Maria," from Verdi's "Four Sacred Pieces." Fred Stoltzfus then led the UI Chorale in a lively motet, "Komm, Jesu Komm" by Johann Schelle (1648-1701). The same forces then performed, in Russian, "Three Sacred Hymns" by Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-98).
"The Other Guys" then offered two touching numbers, "MLK" (originally by U2), and "Mama Look Sharp" by Sherman Edwards, from the musical "1776." After "MLK," Barrington Coleman conducted the Varsity Men's Glee Club in Ron Nelson's "Behold Man."
In between came jazz improvisations on classic tunes by Cole Porter and John Newman by members of the School of Music jazz faculty, introduced by Chip McNeill on tenor saxophone. Others in the group were Tito Carrillo, trumpet, Jim Pugh, trombone, Larry Gray, bass, Joan Hickey, piano, and Joel Spencer, drums.
And four chorale groups offered a roof-raising version of "There is Nothing like a Dame" from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "South Pacific."
Somewhere along here was a mini-intermission, giving us out in the hall a chance to rise and stretch a bit.
The last six pieces on the program received fine accompaniment by the UI Symphony Orchestra, vigorously conducted by Diazmunoz, whose highly dramatic gestures I usually do not see at opera performances, since there he conducts in the pit. Yvonne Redman, soprano, bravely cresting the swell of orchestral sound, offered "I could have danced all night" from Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" and "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Giacomo Puccini's opera "Gianni Schicchi."
Then, seven voices intoned "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha" by Wasserman-Leigh-Darlon, joined by four choral groups. From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Requiem," the voices of Ollie Watts Davis, Bethany Stiles, Griffin Candey, and Ricardo Herrera blended expertly together in the "Ricordare" section.
Then came the blockbusters. The UI Chorale, the Varsity Men's Glee Club, the Women's Glee Club, and the Oratorio Society, with the UI Symphony, shook the rafters with the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, "Va, Pensiero" from Verdi's opera "Nabucco." The same choral forces, joined by six soloists, offered a thunderous rendition of the finale, "Make Our Garden Grow," from Bernstein's opera "Candide." And for an encore, the opening "Almighty Father" was repeated. Someday, it is my dream that such vocal forces can do Gustav Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" in the Foellinger.
What a concert! No one there will ever forget it. What would Mr. Schleis have said? I am sure that his remark would have been incisive, and also unforgettable. As Rudyard Kipling put it, "The tumult and the shouting dies,/ The captains and the kings depart.."
Now, Tom, rest in peace.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.