The Champaign-Urbana Symphony is back, after 554 days since its last pre-COVID-19 concert. That number was mentioned by conductor Stephen Alltop, and I am sure he had been counting, much like the orchestral players and the audience been watching the calendar and waiting for concert life to resume.
This first live concert by the C-U Symphony was played Sunday in Heritage Hall at the I Hotel and Conference Center, south of the University of Illinois campus. The title was “Favorites from the Stage and the Screen,” and the selections ranged from Richard Wagner to John Williams.
Heritage Hall is quite wide, and the orchestra played against one of the long walls. The sound of the hall was more subdued and less brilliant and resonant than Krannert Center’s Foellinger Great Hall.
The concert began with a medley from “The Sound of Music” (Richard Rodgers, music, Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics). A forceful cadence at the end of “Do-Re-Me” enticed the enthusiastic audience to break into applause, which prompted Alltop to turn around and say, “There’s more.” “More” included the resounding melody of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
Other Broadway and Hollywood music came from “Fiddler on the Roof” (Jerry Bock, music, Sheldon Harnick, lyrics), and that famous melody of Tevya on his roof was well played by concertmaster Maria Arrua.
Richard Wagner’s thundering “Ride of the Valkyries” from his opera “The Valkyrie” gets its screen credit from its being played from loudspeakers mounted on the U.S. helicopters attacking a North Vietman village in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now,” a version of Joseph Conrad’s famous novella “Heart of Darkness.” Alltop led an exciting performance. All that was lacking was a Wotan helmet for Alltop (see below).
The Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s famous “West Side Story” was a communal performance. All in the audience, young and old, were coached by Alltop to shout “Mambo!” at the corresponding section. Our first “Mambo” was feeble, but after a pep talk, our shouted “Mambo!” showed improvement. In the actual performance, our “Mambo!”s were, in my opinion, excellent. In the wonderful melody of “Somewhere,” the strings of the symphony produced one of the emotional climaxes of the concert.
After some fine string playing in Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” in his one top-hit opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” we came to the longest work of the program, a suite of pieces from John Williams’ music for “Star Wars.” Alltop does not lack for showbiz instincts, and it was not a surprise to see him come out in a Darth Vader mask, and instead of a baton, waving a light saber while leading “The Imperial March.” Later, “Princess Leia’s Theme” featured lovely playing from flutist Mary Leathers Chapman and hornist Stephan Burian.
That left John Phillip Sousa’s most famous march, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” to cap this joyous concert. At the annual Holiday Concert at Krannert, it is a tradition that Alltop will be foxed off the podium by Santa and cheated out of conducting “Jingle Bells.” At this concert, Alltop willingly gave up the baton to a young person chosen by lot from the children who came to this concert.
The winner was Tara Krumwiede, daughter of Elissa and Derek Krumwiede of Cissna Park, where Tara is now in the sixth grade. After Alltop’s very rapid course in conducting, Tara did an admirable job of keeping the beat moving appropriately in this famous march, and the friendly audience gave her a warm round of applause.
In the iconic trio section, the piccolo players, Mary Leathers Chapman, Amanda Pond and Ellen Elrick, stood and were later called upon for a solo bow for their sprightly playing. All the brass players also took a collective bow for their resounding efforts.
The next C-U Symphony concert, called “Baroque Brilliance,” is set for Nov. 6 at Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign. For the symphony’s holiday concert, set for Dec. 9, the ensemble will be back in the friendly confines of Foellinger Great Hall.