Season to Taste

by Maegan C.M. Gilliland Wright

The Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s music director cooks up another season.

For six years, Maestro George Stelluto has delivered sounds both strange and familiar to Peoria Symphony Orchestra (PSO) audiences. A faculty member of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City and associate conductor of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, Stelluto is always on the move—yet he’s remained highly involved in the Peoria community, radiating a passion for his art that transcends any individual performance.

Behind the scenes lies an intricate assemblage of elements that are often invisible to the public—the masterful bounty of each year’s repertoire, with selections intended to challenge, delight and impact audiences. In the end, Stelluto says, it’s all about ensuring you have the right ingredients at the right proportions.

A Dance of Flavors
Long before any intimate artistic experience can be realized, the Maestro must assemble the many pieces that constitute a season. This is no arbitrary collection, but a carefully curated process, one that requires focused planning and research. A self-described foodie, Stelluto describes it much like a master chef. “You want to look at a season as if it was a very long meal,” he explains. “You don’t want every course to be the same. You have to make sure that the pieces for each particular course—the concert—are either complementary, or contrast each other in ways that bring out their salient qualities.”

The result is a series of performances that serve as recipes for a grand meal—a dance of flavors to excite the musical palate. “You have this arc over a whole season of different kinds of experiences,” Stelluto observes. “They can contrast, and sometimes that actually makes it more vibrant.”

It’s a many-layered brew of the right guest artists, musical pieces both traditional and novel, and creative program concepts, all while keeping an ear to the varied desires of a diverse audience. It’s far from straightforward and impossible to define; in cooking terms, the ingredients are “to taste.” “There’s not really a formula,” he remarks. “And I’m not sure you really want there to be a formula.”

Over the years, Stelluto has amassed countless ideas, letting them simmer until every part of the picture is complete. They come to him in conversations with his board of directors, from area musicians and from the community at large. “I’ve actually been quite impressed with the sophistication of the suggestions some people brought in,” he notes, adding that he is always left with a single question: Will it work? “You put on your chef’s hat and you start planning. You’ve got 1,600 people coming for dinner—what am I going to serve?”

Musical Discovery with PSO Principal Trombone Mark Babbitt at the WTVP Studio, March 29, 2016. The series introduces children to various instruments through hands-on demonstrations.

Artists in Residency
Patrons of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra are often treated to a unique experience: interacting with the guest artist. Stelluto’s selection and use of guest artists is one of the most important ingredients in forming a successful season. And in a chicken-and-egg scenario, one asks which comes first: the guest artist or the repertoire? Stelluto says the two are inextricably entwined. “You have to look at what guest artist you want to have, what kind of works they want to perform… and what they can bring to the table that will make for not just a good concert, but for a good residency.”

Allowing an audience to spend time with the guest artist improves the artistic experience for all, Stelluto believes, yet the PSO’s focus on artist residencies is fairly unique among symphonies worldwide. “It’s not really done a lot,” he admits. The typical formula—soloist comes to town, does a couple of rehearsals and the concert, then leaves—doesn’t encourage a relationship between the artist and audience. “The only relationship they end up having… is to see them from a distance, and clap when they’re done,” he notes. “They may be inspired by the performance… but there’s not that personal connection.”

Though it requires a great deal of additional planning, the rewards of artist residencies are much greater engagement between the audience and the artist. “It’s a really important part of what we do,” Stelluto explains. “We want our artists here for a week. We want them to interact with different members of the community, so they become part of the community.”

For some guest artists, a lengthy residency is simply not possible. Still, when banjoist Béla Fleck came to Peoria in 2014, he found time to play a student concert and attend another PSO event, in addition to his scheduled subscription performance. On the other hand, virtuoso pianist Tengku Irfan was able to spend eight full days in residence—a demanding schedule that included pop-up concerts at local restaurants and pubs, performances at hospitals and senior living centers, and appearances at various community events. He also visited local classrooms, where the performer—still a teenager himself—made a lasting impression. “When he comes in, he’s not just the ‘big guest artist,’” Stelluto observes. “He interacts with students his own age, and they become colleagues.’”

When the PSO performed Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte in March, the six visiting professional opera singers had similar schedules, and again among the highlights was a visit to an area school. When one of the singers dropped in on a classroom of 15, his infectious laugh and resounding voice echoed throughout the building. “We got a call that said all the kids down the hall heard him singing and they all want to go now,” Stelluto recalls. “We ended up having to do [the performance] in an auditorium for 150 kids. You can’t buy that kind of enthusiasm.”

The artists also appreciate such community-minded gestures. Stelluto recounts a particularly poignant moment when Béla Fleck arrived in Peoria. “The Central Illinois Banjo Society met him at the airport and serenaded him. When he got in the car, he said that was the coolest thing he’d ever seen.” And after they leave their residencies, he adds, the guest artists often remain fascinated by the Peoria area’s passion for music… a significant, lasting impression. “It’s an opportunity for us to show what we have.”

Engaging the Community
All of the work that goes into a PSO season is ultimately aimed at creating an unforgettable experience for the audience. “If the listener is not engaged, then the art form is really not coming to life,” Stelluto declares.

Part of creating that engagement occurs when he visits with patrons in the lobby after performances. “If you’re going to be generous with your art form, you want to know what people’s reactions are; you want to know what they’re feeling,” he says. “It’s a much more meaningful interaction, because they not only know your artistry, they know you somewhat as a person.” Such contact, he adds, helps break down the walls between the composer, the artists and the audience.

PSO Music Director George Stelluto with students at “Heroic Horn,” the first Musical Discovery concert of last season

“This is all about the human condition,” Stelluto explains. “Whether abstractly or programmatically, what these composers write about involves the human condition—and everybody in that audience has the same experiences that those composers and artists have had.” As the audience increases their engagement, the impact of the performance multiplies, he adds.

The Maestro also strives to create experiences for those who cannot attend the PSO’s formal performances—a task made possible by the support of the community he serves. From the Musical Discovery series, which introduces children to various instruments through hands-on demonstrations, to performances at senior care facilities, Stelluto values these moments for connecting him with the community. And with programs like Sound Bites—intimate performances taped live for later broadcast on WTVP—available on demand, the impact is enduring.

“We are leaving a legacy that goes beyond just one concert,” Stelluto says. “Sometimes that legacy is the fact that a guest artist met with some people who will never forget that interaction, and sometimes… [it’s] these great performances that people can enjoy any time in their life.”

Beyond the Music
As the PSO kicks off its 119th season in September, Stelluto hopes the Peoria community will continue to treasure the arts—and music, in particular—for the great value it brings to our lives. “There are serious and real things this art form does for people beyond enjoying a good tune,” he notes. “All of the brain research coming out now is showing the benefits to the mind that’s engaged with great music.

“It’s not just something extra and pleasant that we’d like to have,” he continues. “It’s really important for our general health to have interaction with the arts. It’s a choice that communities must make... Are we going to have this quality of life, or are we choosing not to? That’s what it comes down to. And the people who don’t have it will be at a disadvantage.” a&s

For more information or to purchase season tickets, visit or call (309) 671-1096.