CHAMPAIGN — When it came time to plan The Prairie Ensemble's 17th season, Kevin Kelly knew he wanted to collaborate with the University of Illinois jazz faculty.
After all, they've become a vital part of the university's School of Music, not to mention the community.
So the chamber orchestra's season will open Friday at Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign with "America's Music," a concert that will feature the two Chips: Chip McNeill, head of the jazz studies program, and Chip Stephens, jazz pianist.
Stephens will perform George Gershwin's famous "Rhapsody in Blue."
"I've heard Chip Stephens a number of times and thought he had the technical chops to do this piece," Kelly said.
Kelly originally asked McNeill, primarily a saxophonist, to solo on a piece. McNeill went further, suggesting his own arrangements of jazz standards for orchestra. They will feature him on tenor sax and vocals.
And because jazz is an original American art form, Kelly decided to make the rest of the program all-American, too.
The first half will feature Henry Cowell's "Saturday Night at the Firehouse"; it's unlike the avant garde pieces for which Cowell is known but instead nostalgic, depicting how firehouses were once community centers, even for dances, Kelly said.
Henry F. Gilbert's "Suite for Chamber Orchestra" is an obscure yet beautiful piece that features a second movement that reflects the composer's interest in American spirituals, Kelly said.
The Prairie Ensemble also will perform contemporary composer John Harbison's "Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra." Harbison has written a lot of music, including an opera, inspired by the novel "The Great Gatsby," but this is not from his opera, Kelly said.
The two Chips will come in during the second half, with McNeill performing standards such as "Blues in the Night" and "Smile" — written by Charlie Chaplin — and Stephens at the keyboard performing the iconic "Rhapsody in Blue."
The other two concerts:
— "A Windy Affair," on Feb. 24, will feature works written for woodwinds, brass, percussion and vocals, with guest artists Prairie Voices, a local ensemble directed by Laurie Matheson.
Because some of the pieces are ecclesiastical, Kelly chose to have the concert inside Holy Cross Catholic Church in Champaign.
It will open with George Frideric Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," which is best known for its full orchestral setting. However, Handel originally composed the piece for winds and drums alone.
The other pieces will be Estonian composer Arvo Prt's "Fratres" for winds alone, Igor Stravinsky's "Mass" for winds and voices and the a cappella "Four Motets on Gregorian Themes" by Maurice Durufl.
The concert will end with Arthur Bird's "Serenade for Winds," an award-winning piece from 1898 that Kelly called a nice, romantic piece for wind instruments.
"The resonance and beauty of Holy Cross Church will provide the ideal setting for this program, especially the middle portion, from Stravinsky's spare Mass setting to Prt's ethereal evocation of a procession of monks," Kelly said.
— The final concert, "Conductor's Choice," on May 4 at McKinley Presbyterian Church, Champaign, will feature pieces Kelly loves. He called it the most conventional concert of the season because it features three standard orchestral pieces, each dramatic in its own way: Mozart's Symphony 25 in G Minor — it opens the film "Amadeus" in dramatic fashion; Richard Strauss' "Horn Concerto No. 1" with soloist Bernard Scully, a UI horn professor; and Symphony No. 5 by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Kelly considers the Vaughan Williams piece so beautiful that he calls it the "highlight of the season." Yet Vaughan Williams often is overlooked.
Kelly, who studied French horn at Northwestern University, said he remembers how he and other horn students skipped the Vaughn Williams excerpts in their brass and wind players' books.
"I asked why we skip those — these pieces are beautiful," Kelly remembered. "Our horn teacher said nobody plays them. I thought, 'That's not a good reason.'"
The symphony has a number of sounds characteristic of Vaughan Williams, including quiet, pastoral riffs and powerful, dramatic moments involving the orchestra's full brass section.
As a horn student, Kelly often played Strauss' Horn Concerto No. 1. He called it exciting and virtuosic and said Scully will do it justice.
"He's a really fine player, who until recently was the principal horn for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra," Kelly said.
Tickets for Prairie Ensemble concerts are $18 for general admission and $8 for students. Season tickets are $48 and $18. Tickets may be purchased at the door or ahead of time at http://www.prairieensemble.org/ or by calling 355-9077.
If you go
What: The Prairie Ensemble, founded and directed by Kevin Kelly, opens its 17th season with the concert "America's Music," featuring University of Illinois jazz faculty members Chip McNeill and Chip Stephens as guest artists
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Ave., C
Tickets: $18 general admission; $8 for students
Information: 355-9077; http://www.prairieensemble.org/