The Sunday, Jan. 15, concert of the East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra (ECIYO), led by music director Kevin Kelly, was for me the first concert of 2023. Smith Memorial Hall was host to a very large audience. The balcony, where I sat, had more people there than on any occasion in my memory.

The concert opened with a blast of brass from Dimitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” a work written on a three-day deadline for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1954. The youthful players of the ECIYO, under conductor Kelly’s urgent baton, gave a rousing performance of this musical ice-breaker. One can see why this jovial work is used in Russia for ceremonial holidays, and it served as the theme song for the 1980s Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Irving Fine’s 1960 “Diversions for Orchestra” continued the lighthearted mood established by the Shostakovich work. The Fine composition was written for a 1960 youth concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was dedicated to Fine’s three daughters and their French poodle, Koko. The third movement, “Koko’s Lullaby,” reminded me, of all composers, of Gustav Mahler in his lighter moments. The second movement, “Flamingo Polka,” and the fourth, final movement, “The Red Queen’s Gavotte,” were originally written as incidental music for a production of “Alice in Wonderland.” The polka reveled in a tipsy, satiric mood, and the gavotte offered a whiff of antique celebration.

The first half of the concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s well-known waltz from his best-known opera, “Eugene Onegin.” The beginning of this waltz, which raises the curtain on Act 2 of the opera, sounded a bit uncertain, but once Kelly got the players to respond to the infectious waltz beat, it was clear sailing toward intermission.

The second half opened with what might be considered a matching book end to the Shostakovich overture. This work, Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture,” written in 1938 for New York’s High School of Music and Art, was part of Copland’s effort to appeal to a wider, more populist audience. If the Shostakovich overture had more direct appeal, the Copland composition offered subtler pleasures. The general level of the playing of the Copland piece was quite high, with an excellent trumpet interlude by trumpeter Aaron Rosenstein, and fine playing from hornist Benjamin Leeb, as well as the clarinets and strings. Oddly enough, I have heard this “outdoor” overture mostly indoors, but I believe I have heard a band arrangement of it played on the UI Quad at a summer concert.

The main piece of the second half was a suite from the music which Virgil Thomson wrote for the 1936 documentary film by Pare Lorentz about the “Dust Bowl” drought conditions in the Great Plains, during the 1930s.

Thomson’s music somewhat underplays the tragic situation of the farmers in the middle of an environmental disaster. In the section entitled “Cattle,” the composer used the melodies of cowboy songs, such as “Streets of Laredo” and “I Ride an Old Paint” (“paint”= “spotted horse”), in which the woodwinds of the ECIYO ensemble excelled. The saxophone solos, adding a special tonal flavor, were especially well played. The final section, “Devastation,” eloquently employed flutes and drums in a requiem-like chorale, topped by a grandiose dissonance. Amid strong applause, Kelly called on the oboes, flutes, clarinets and others for bows.

The concert ended with John Phillip Sousa’s 1893 march, “The Liberty Bell,” the title of which evoked the symbol of the famous bell in Philadelphia. This march was originally written for an unfinished operetta, entitled “The Devil’s Deputy,” and it was adapted for presentation at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It has the distinction of being played at five of the last seven U.S. presidential inaugurations, as well as being used as a program opener for episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The ECIYO players performed it with enthusiastic gusto. This concert was impressive evidence of the hard work put in by the student players and Kelly, their director. It also showed the high level of instrumental teaching by the faculty of The Conservatory of Central Illinois.

John Frayne hosts ‘Classics of the Phonograh’ on Saturdays on WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. His email is frayne@illinois.edu.

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