The East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra gave its 2020 Winter Concert on Jan. 19. The young instrumentalists were led by Kevin Kelly, who has conducted this training orchestra of the Conservatory of Central Illinois since 1997. The concert was given in Smith Memorial Hall, a concert venue of the UIUC, which was completed in 1920. This hall was recently refurbished, with new upholstered seats and new carpeting. To my ears, the music of this hall has a new mellowness and a softer sound. The improvement in seating comfort is enormous.
The program opened with the 1821 Overture to the opera “Der Freischütz” (“The Free Shooter”) by Carl Maria von Weber. This opera, dealing with magic bullets and pacts with the devil, is the opening salvo in the German romantic opera. After a quiet introduction, Weber has the orchestra play a mighty blast, and the young players delivered the fortissimo chord with gusto. Under Kelly’s experienced beat, the orchestra did very well in the melody of the opera heroine Agathe’s major aria.
Next came selections from G.F. Handel’s “Water Music,” written in 1717 for a pleasure ride on the river Thames by King George I, who, like Handel, was a German transplant in England. Before the Baroque Revival of the past half century, with its stress on original instruments, excerpts from Handel’s three suites of “Water Music” were arranged in 1920 by the brilliant Irish conductor Hamilton Harty with a Suite of six pieces.
This suite for modern orchestra used to be very popular and it was a delight to hear it again. The string players did especially well in the “Air” section, and the “Andante espressivo” movement was very successful.
Next came J. S. Bach’s most famous organ piece, “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” in the orchestral transcription made by the great conductor Leopold Stokowski. This work has acquired a serio-comic reputation due to it being played by musically gifted mad scientists in horror films (see Peter Lorre in “A Mad Love”).
The orchestra intoned the grand opening of the Toccata eloquently, and, guided with skill by conductor Kelly, did an impressive job in Bach’s contrapuntal coiling of his themes in the Fugue.
The second half of the concert opened with a bright-sounding “España,” a Frenchman’s tribute to sunny Spain by Emmanuel Chabrier, in which the ensemble’s trombones stood out in the orchestral climaxes. Then Manuel de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” was given a lively reading with prominent rolls from the timpani, but the woodwinds might have been louder in the first utterance of the main theme.
By this time in the program, we in the audience might have wondered why, between pieces, all the violins got up and moved around. The answer was that the violins change places from the first violin section to the second violin section. This was part of conductor Kelly’s effort to show the important role the second violins play as well as the first violins.
The concert ended with a lively suite from the music composed by Soviet Armenian Aram Khachaturian (he of the “Sabre Dance”) for the drama “Masquerade” by the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). The bright tunes of this Suite lent themselves well to the orchestra’s high-spirited playing.
In the quiet “Nocturne” section, one of the ensemble co-concertmasters, Jenna Shin, eloquently played the violin solo. The explosive final “Galop” evoked strong applause, and then Kelly called for a solo bow for Shin, and afterward asked the various sections of the orchestra to rise for bows.
It was a very pleasurable concert, and the family members of the performers should feel proud at the maturing skills of these devoted young players. Finally, the lengthy program notes, written by orchestra members, were uniformly excellent.