The audiences have returned. The music is spectacular. And, the honorifics given the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra are well deserved.
In 2020, IPO was named the Illinois Orchestra of the Year, and this year IPO was selected to represent Illinois by United Symphonies of America in its national initiative to promote regional symphony orchestras.
“Being named Orchestra of the Year, it demonstrates how our orchestra stands out among all the orchestras in the state of Illinois, which there are many,” said Kathy Orr, president of the IPO board of directors. “To see us continually increase our acclaim in the world of orchestras has been so exciting.”
“If there was a silver lining during COVID, it definitely was that (Orchestra of the Year award),” said Phillip Serna, bassist and personnel manager who has played with IPO for 20 years. “I think it shows how the orchestra has grown, even in the last five years. It was a great source of pride.”
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra has 43 musicians playing strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Today IPO is recognized regionally, statewide and nationally for its outstanding musicianship and direct involvement with the communities in the South Suburbs.
IPO has been on a steady climb since it organized as a professional chamber orchestra in 1978, taking its roots from the Park Forest Orchestra founded by volunteer musicians in 1954.
Maestro Carmon DeLeone took the baton from the start and was music director and conductor for 25 years developing a professional orchestra from scratch and working to build audiences and recognition.
The second music director was David Danzmayr. He served from 2012 through 2016. Cellist Ingrid Krizan said he “is brilliant and he brought the orchestra up to a whole new level. He really developed a sound in the strings…he just turned it into a real lush and vibrant orchestra sound.”
When the IPO began its next search for a music director, it had more than 170 applicants from around the world. The IPO board of directors selected Bulgarian Stilian Kirov as its third music director and conductor in 2017.
Classics and new works
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra has planned for seven concerts this season, that will include some traditional pieces, such as Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and a range of newer works, such as Michael Abel’s “Frederick’s Fables.”
Kirov has been introducing new pieces to audiences, including works written for the IPO by young composers.
“The programming has been extremely exciting for someone like me, as opposed to only playing say the big standard rep. It’s been quite a lot more interesting,” Serna, the bassist, said.
Krizan agreed. “I love to learn new pieces. During this Classical Evolve (new composers competition) we were sight reading a bunch of new stuff by new composers. I love that. That’s a breath of fresh air challenge.”
In addition, IPO continues its collaborations with other artists. It’s first show this season included dancers from the Joffrey Academy of Dance and during the 2019 season it had a choir perform for the holiday show.
“Artistically, collaborations encourage artists to work creatively and be flexible in their individual performances. For instance, when we worked with dancers, tempi needed to be adjusted to accommodate the choreography,” said IPO Executive Director Christina Salerno. “In turn, this heightened effort leads to new artistic gains for artists on both sides of the collaboration.
“Collaboration is also just plain fun,” she added. “It’s invigorating to have new people in your midst to work with and it’s exciting to be part of new art being made in real time.”
The orchestra brings in renown soloists, such as violinist Rachel Barton Pine performing Feb. 19, and it uses its own IPO talent, including four members of the woodwinds section performing Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante for Winds” on Nov. 13.
Krizan, of Homewood, IPO cellist, has been with the group for nearly 20 years. She’s aware that classical music isn’t enjoyed by everyone, but she thinks that’s just because it’s not standard fare. People do hear pieces as background music and in movies and don’t recognize it’s a classical work, she said.
“Music is so powerful, and we don’t realize it. And the live music experience is what people are lacking right now with their noses in their screens and so many background music/sound effects things. Anyone can write a song on their phone now, it’s a totally different world,” she said.
“Live music is the instant connection not just with the sounds but watching the performers and the interaction. That’s what people need more of in their lives…direct interaction even if it’s socially distanced.
“And people don’t realize that live performers are affected by them as they are affected by what the performers are doing,” she said. “If we play and think ‘That went pretty well,’ and the audience is like ‘Oh, are they done,’ I guess it wasn’t affective. We did terribly. If the audience is shouting and clapping, (and you think) ‘I guess that was affective.’ That energizes us for the next thing.”
IPO expanding its reach
“Our primary focus is No. 1, to bring absolute, quality music to our south suburban region, and No. 2, equally important is our education component and going into schools as time and money permits,” said board president Orr. “Our musicians do performances and concerts for students. It is a major part of our organization.”
Maestro Kirov has worked with the Homewood-Flossmoor High School orchestra, and H-F students have been guest performers in the lobby of Ozinga Chapel before IPO concerts begin. IPO musicians have been in Homewood District 153 and Flossmoor District 161 schools for annual May youth concerts.
“The IPO has a real commitment to the community,” said Mel Muchnik, past president of the IPO board of directors. “It’s not just the concerts, its many things. IPO has a special focus on education in the schools, and community initiatives” like its concert in downtown Flossmoor in August.
Even before the pandemic, but especially because of the pandemic, the IPO musicians, staff and board of directors have all tried to do outreach to the community, including pop-up concerts given by 4-5 musicians in restaurants. Its 2020 gala had musicians performing new works and drew performances by members of the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.
IPO encourages young musicians through high school age with its Rising Star Showcase each spring at Flossmoor Community Church.
Salerno also points to its Classical Evolve, IPO’s competition for new composers. “Each year we do a call for scores and receive about 50 submissions. From those submissions, our music director and a judge narrow the pool down to three finalists” who are given several months to create a work for 25 musicians.
“The new commissions are rehearsed and performed live before an audience and three world class judges,” she said. “Judges, audience and musicians all vote on their favorite composition and the winning composer becomes IPO’s composer-in-residence for the following year, composing three new works for full orchestra.”
IPO composer-in-residence Martha Horst’s work “Reverberations” will be performed at the May 14 concert and conclude her pandemic-interrupted season.
Come enjoy a performance
Not sure an orchestral program’s for you? Here’s a chance to come to an IPO concert as an introduction to the world of orchestral music. Homewood and Flossmoor library patrons can get free Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra concert tickets as part of the IPO’s Check Out program. Salerno said patrons use their library card to ‘check out’ a pass that is exchanged at the box office the night of the concert for a pair of tickets “enabling them to ‘check out’ IPO live!”