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03 May 2018

'Gathering' celebrates UI's 150th in style

by John Frayne (The News-Gazette)

On Saturday, April 21, a gala concert entitled "Gathering" was given in Krannert Center's Foellinger Great Hall to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the University of Illinois. This concert displayed the talents of the UI Chamber Singers, conducted by Andrew Megill, and the UI Wind Symphony, conducted by Stephen Peterson.

As befits such a festive occasion, the concert was on a lavish, sometimes spectacular scale. The music performed was by more than 10 composers and included about 13 selections. The styles ranged from medieval chant to modern ethnic pop rhythms and elaborate symphonic impressions of natural wonders. At times, it was enough to make your head spin and your ears ring. Where to begin?

Before a note was sounded, a brief address of welcome was delivered by UIUC Provost Andreas Cangellaris.

The opening musical salvo began with Peterson leading the Wind Symphony in Donald Grantham's "J' ai ete au bal" ("I Went to a Dance"), a slightly wild representation of Louisiana Cajuns enjoying the pleasures of their traditional dances.

In contrast, Andrew Megill led the Chamber Singers in an intricate mixture of plainchant by Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German nun, in her setting of "O Ignis Spiritus" ("O Fire of the Spirit"), with Stephen Paulus' "Hymn to the Eternal Flame." This sequence ended with a highly elaborate contrapuntal setting by Swiss composer Frank Martin of the Greek prayers in the Roman Catholic Mass, "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord, have mercy") and "Christe eleison" ("Christ, have mercy").

To my ears, some of the evening's best choral singing was in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Three Shakespeare Songs," drawn from "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." More down to earth sentiments were projected in the Chamber Singers' versions of the sea chanty, "Tommy's Gone to Ilo," arranged by William Deguire, with Michael Brand soloist, and William Averitt's "Fire!" from "Afro-American Fragments." The latter selection, with a hopping rhythm set by Simon Tiffin and Hanqian Zhu at the piano, was an electrifying setting of a poem by the famous Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, which begins with the lines, "Fire, Fire, Lord/ Fire gonna burn ma soul!"

The first half of the concert ended with John Mackey's "The Frozen Cathedral," a work for symphonic band in which he evoked the splendors of Mount McKinley in Alaska. This was for me the evening's most spectacular work. Strange sounds from such exotic instruments such as the bass flute (Danielle Nutting), and from players in the balcony, a weird tones-producing instrument called the waterphone created a mood of awed suspense. As the work evolved, all the instrumental splendors of the Wind Symphony created a sense of mystery and wonder that ended in a blazing climax.

As the concert's second part began, the well-known ensemble, "The Promise of Living," from Aaron Copland's opera "The Tender Land" about a Midwestern farm, brought us closer to the basic idea of the concert, 150 years of educational achievement at the UI. This ideal climaxed in a work commissioned from the Indiana composer Dominick DiOrio entitled "Gathering." In an attempt to find in words the feeling of what the UI means to the people of Illinois and to the world, the novelist and UI Emeritus Professor of English Richard Powers chose to use a 1968 poem, "Slowly, slowly, wisdom gathers," by UI graduate and literature professor Mark van Doren, as well as words by architect Fazlur Khan and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rosalyn Yalow.

"Gathering" is a work for a celebration, and DiOrio has created a solemn and suitably ceremonial piece for this occasion. One unusual aspect of "Gathering" was the use of quotations from Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem" ("How Lovely Are Thy Dwelling Places"), as well as the famous triumphal theme from the finale of Brahms' First Symphony.

The texts chosen by Powers were judicious and reflected an imaginative taste. The two soloists, soprano Yvonne Redman and baritone Richard Todd Payne, as well as the Chamber Singers, sang splendidly DiOrio's settings, but unfortunately, much of the text, except the passages sung by baritone Payne, did not come through clearly. But, all in all, DiOrio's work was an affecting climax to the evening's celebration.

To end the concert in a lighter vein, a medley of UI favorites, entitled "Illini Jubilee," was played during which the audience was invited to sing along the lines "Hail to the Orange, Hail to the Blue!" Also coming on stage to sing along were Andrew Megill, composer DiOrio and soloists Redman and Payne. It was indeed a "Gathering"!

Congratulations are in order to conductors Megill and Peterson, the orchestra and the chorus and all those who worked to make this occasion so special. The lavishly illustrated program booklet deserves to be a collectors' item.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at [email protected]