The strong suit of Kevin Kelly and his Prairie Ensemble is their unusual and challenging repertory. Their May 10 concert at McKinley Presbyterian Church, with the resounding title of "Around the World in One Night," offered four pieces, two of which were unknown to me, one that was familiar and one a classic standard. This is somewhat different from the usual classical concert, which ordinarily offers one challenging contemporary piece.
All the music was, if not exotic, at least about far-off places. Darius Milhaud wrote an enormous amount of music, of which his Ballet Negre "The Creation of the World" is one of the few pieces still regularly played. Dating from the 1920s, the piece employs jazz rhythms and harmonies. The original idea for the ballet came from African myths about the creation of the world. The music, to my ears, has a pleasurable kind of floating, dreamlike effect. Clearly, Milhaud was influenced by Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," that seminal work that placed the word "primitive" high on the aesthetic scale.
The excellent playing of Michael Fenoglio's saxophone revealed the jazzy idiom from the start. He was joined at the work's end in solo bows by the players of clarinet, flute, trumpet and trombone.
Alan Hovhaness, with his 67 numbered symphonies, resembled Milhaud in fecundity. His "Tzaikerk," or "Evening Song," reveals the composer's part-Armenian heritage. This amiable, pleasing work, with its solos for violin (Igor Kalnin), flute (Mary Leathers Chapman) and timpani (William Mullen) is typical Hovhaness: easy to take and pleasing up to a point — the point at which the music is either trance-inducing or boring, in other words, proto-minimalist. The fine playing by these three soloists evoked strong applause.
Daron Hagen's 2011 "Genji, Concerto for Koto and Chamber Orchestra" highlighted the lovely playing of the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, by Yoko Reikano Kimura. The inspiration for this piece came from Lady Murasaki's 11th-century famous classic novel, "The Tale of the Genji."
Hagen's music alluringly blends the Western sounds of the orchestra with the contrasting sounds of the koto, which produces elegant arching melodies with usually sharp percussive notes. Under Kimura's practiced hand, there were also occasional dramatic and explosive passages. I liked this piece very much, although I thought it went on a bit too long for what it had to say. I wish the sightlines at the McKinley Presbyterian Church were better. Half the fun of this Koto Concerto was in seeing Kimura play this long, elegant instrument. Many in the audience stood at the work's completion. As encore, Kimura played and sang with charm and deep feeling the Japanese song "Akashi," composed by Kitajima Kengyo.
As a halftime special attraction, this concert offered traditional drum playing by "Gah Rahk Mah Dahng," the group of University of Illinois students devoted to traditional Korean music. These four students played their drums, called "Samulnori," with a gusto that produced a very high decibel level. Fearing for my ears, I retired outside the hall, the better to enjoy the drumming in safety.
The concert ended with a melodious performance, judiciously paced by Kelly, of Felix Mendelssohn's famous "Italian Symphony," No 4. Despite the dry and unresonant acoustics of this church, the performance was highly enjoyable, with excellent playing by the horns in the scherzo movement and by the woodwinds throughout.
The next Prairie Ensemble concert will be "A Musical Soiree" July 19 at Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Ave., C. The concert will begin at 7:30; flutist Mary Leathers Chapman will be the featured soloist in Carl Nielsen's "Flute Concerto."
Also on the program will be Ludwig van Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6, Pastoral."
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.