An Orchestra With Heart

by Amy Chovan
Photography by Ken Kiley

Innovative. Collaborative. Spontaneous. Intimate. Festive. Masterful. And not your typical chamber orchestra.

Since its inaugural concert last summer, the Heartland Festival Orchestra has been keeping audiences on their toes with an innovative repertoire, world-class guest soloists, surprises at every concert, and a high level of audience participation and engagement.

Great Minds Think Alike
Terry Maher is one of the founding musicians of the Heartland Festival Orchestra; she also plays with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. When Commanday and the Peoria Symphony parted ways last year, Maher said, “We were just devastated at the thought of not being able to have David Commanday as a conductor…He really is a phenomenal conductor. What he does when he gets up there…is truly outstanding.”

Maher explained that she and a core group of musicians who had wanted to form a chamber orchestra in Peoria looked at each other and said, “‘Well, wait a minute. We’ve always wanted to play in a chamber orchestra. David Commanday is available and wants to stay in Peoria. We want to play for David Commanday…’ so these two things just sort of came together.”

As it turned out, ideas for conducting a group that was more in tune with “the changing styles and expectations in our society” had been percolating in Commanday’s head for years. And when the opportunity to work with a chamber orchestra came to him, he didn’t pass it up. The stars had aligned.

The Best of the Best
Filling the chairs behind Commanday are musicians of the same caliber as their conductor. Those involved in the group’s formation wanted it to be the very best it could be, which meant, on Commanday’s part, extending personal invitations to friends and colleagues who had proven themselves to be among the finest musicians in the region. Others were recruited and auditioned for their parts in the group.

“Besides being able to play for a truly outstanding conductor,” said Maher, “one of the things I really appreciate about playing in the Heartland Festival Orchestra is that every member of the orchestra is a top-level professional.”

This is significant because, whereas not every note that every musician plays in a large symphony will be heard, in a small chamber orchestra (generally with just one musician per part), every note of every part is very important. Maher likens this to the difference between driving a truck and a sports car. Individual players have less control over the sound produced by a symphony orchestra simply because of the large number of musicians. But in a chamber orchestra, there are fewer players and fewer parts. Neither does every piece require the same number of musicians, which means there is no set roster. “The number of players,” explained Commanday, “depends entirely on the demands of the music in each concert.”

For example, the group’s inaugural concert required Maher’s bassoon only for the last piece, and so she arrived about halfway through the first rehearsal. “I walked into the hall while they were playing, and that first rehearsal sounded almost as good as the concert performance for most of the orchestras I play in,” she said. “I was absolutely floored. And, of course, they had another rehearsal on top of that, and the result was just about perfection. It is such a thrill to play with that quality of players.”
Conducting the best of the best in the region, said Commanday, is “a joyous experience! From that first downbeat of the first rehearsal, I’m already engaging with the kind of subtler musical issues, which in other ensembles sometimes takes much longer to get to. So from the beginning, we’re talking about music—not about how do we get these notes played, but how are we going to play them?”

According to Commanday, another marked difference between working with a small chamber orchestra and a large symphony is the amount of energy the conductor must exert. The size of the orchestral forces, he said, determines how much physical energy he has to project. “When conducting smaller groups of musicians, you’re still shaping the flow of the sound and of the time, but physically you do not have to reach as many people,” he explained.

The amount of energy he expends also depends on the musical selections. Some pieces, like Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” which the HFO performed in November, are extremely difficult and require an immense amount of concentration on the parts of both the musicians and their conductor. Other selections are less demanding, as the rhythms change less rapidly.

A New Type of Orchestra
The type of music played by the Heartland Festival Orchestra also sets them apart. The catalog of music is completely different for a chamber orchestra, said Maher. “It would be unusual for a symphony orchestra to devote time to a piece that only takes eight people. When you have the forces to do large music, you generally do large music.” But a chamber orchestra is the perfect place to explore such musical selections.

While that means that not every player gets to play every piece of music or in each concert, “the payoff is that when there’s a piece to play…it’s more rewarding because you’re not one of 30, you may be one of six. It’s more personal playing,” reported Maher.

Amy Gilreath, principal trumpet and another of the founding musicians, agrees. “The HFO is a more intimate setting. The music we play is specifically designed for a smaller group.” Because their size ranges from three to 35 players, Heartland Festival Orchestra is able to play in smaller venues, making the experience much more personal for both those on stage and in the audience.

The HFO adds a multimedia element to each concert by projecting live video of what’s happening on stage. “In this day and age,” Maher asked, “how many people want to sit for two hours and [just listen]?” That’s why close-up views of Commanday and the HFO musicians are projected onto large screens, giving audiences a perspective they may not have seen before.

Also affecting the atmosphere of performances, orchestra members don’t usually appear on stage in tuxedos and gowns, but in more casual, often brightly colored, ensembles. The audience is also encouraged to dress casually. “The casual dress is nothing more than a symbol, expressing the fact that the music and the players are real and of now, and that nobody, either on stage or in the audience, need feel stiff and inhibited,” said Commanday. “I think it has contributed to the vibrant energy of our performances.”

And this vibrant energy is not just felt on stage. It’s something audience members have recognized, and one of the characteristics for which the Heartland Festival Orchestra has come to be known in its brief existence.

Each concert also offers some sort of surprise. At its first concert, unannounced performances by a brass quintet entertained the crowd before the concert and during the intermission. During its concert in early January, balloons floated down from the ceiling. The element of surprise was an outgrowth of Commanday’s experience conducting for many seasons. Most orchestra performances are planned well in advance, and musical selections are released to the public early on. “And that’s fine,” said Commanday, “but sometimes a piece of music or a soloist or something will come up in the interim that would be perfect for the concert in question…A surprise element leaves space for last-minute or spontaneous additions to the program that may not be either thought of or possible to plan in the early stages.”

This openness to new ideas has undoubtedly contributed to the orchestra’s success. As artistic director, Commanday is open to ideas from the group’s board, musicians and even its audience. While he has his own tricks up his proverbial sleeve, others are continually bringing him new and exciting propositions that may be implemented in future concerts.

The Essence of Community
HFO prides itself on maintaining a community or family feeling within the organization itself. Any player is welcome to offer suggestions to Commanday at any time, and a creative council was formed to ensure that all voices are heard. This core group of musicians meets with the conductor on a regular basis to discuss ideas for music, soloists and concert formats, demonstrating the fluid, family-like structure sought by the orchestra’s founders. Amy Gilreath serves as the musician representative on the HFO Board of Directors and has full voting rights.

According to Commanday, “Our dream is to make orchestral and chamber music come alive in performance, and thereby to enrich the lives of as many of our neighbors as we can reach.” To give back to a community that has been so supportive, the orchestra partners with a local charity for each concert. “I’m not aware of any other orchestra doing this,” Commanday noted, “and I’m proud that it’s part of our mission. It expresses our commitment and gratitude to our community.” So far, HFO has partnered with the Children’s Home, Tee It Up For the Troops and the Junior League of Peoria, and will partner with the Peoria Zoo and the Penguin Project later this season.

Not yet a year old, Heartland Festival Orchestra continues to grow and evolve, working together to bring innovative elements to the music scene in central Illinois. As they move forward with a vision of boldly going where no orchestra has gone before, HFO enjoys experimenting with new ideas.

“The essence of what we’re doing is very idealistic,” said Commanday. “There’s a lot of heart in the Heartland Festival Orchestra, and I love being a part of it.” a&s