Celebrating Past, Present and Future

by Mae Gilliland Wright

The nation’s 14th oldest symphony orchestra gears up for a spectacular anniversary season.

Pictured above: Harold Plowe, PSO founder and first conductor, onstage at the old Shrine Mosque, now Riverside Community Church, where the PSO kicked off its 120th anniversary celebration in June

The strategy is to celebrate our past and embrace our future,” says Maestro George Stelluto of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s 120th anniversary season, which he has been planning for two years. “We want to celebrate not just our anniversary, but many anniversaries, and… do some new things that show that we are a cutting-edge orchestra—looking forward while appreciating our past and present.”

A Whirlwind Recap
The season kicks off in September with Reflections, a gala celebration of several significant anniversaries. Along with a nod to Leonard Bernstein, who would be 100 years old this year, the PSO will perform Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a composition inspired by the visual arts. During this performance, the audience will witness images of Peoria’s past celebrating both the PSO and Bradley University, which also turns 120 years old this year.

“The second concert looks to the future,” Stelluto continues, referring to the October production of La La Land. “The orchestra will play the soundtrack as the film is broadcast on the screen above us. We’ve never done anything like that before, so we’re very excited.” Having conducted the score over the summer with the Milwaukee Symphony and Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, Stelluto will no doubt be in good form.

Violinist Charles Yang returns to Peoria for a third time in January; this time, however, he will be part of a trio: the innovative, genre-defying Time for Three. “They not only play classical music; they also mix it up,” Stelluto explains. “They will even do mash-ups—like Lady Gaga meets Vivaldi.”

The Brazilionaires heat up the stage in February, making their orchestral debut. “They are hard at work with some excellent arrangers, doing some original material for this concert,” Stelluto notes. The annual Romance concert marks another anniversary: Concertmaster Marcia Henry Liebenow, in her 25th year with the PSO, will treat the audience to a solo violin performance.

The PSO will soon unveil its first international solo competition—something they plan to do every other year, focusing on a different instrument. “This year we decided to hold a vocal competition,” Stelluto explains. “[The] American Classics concert in March will feature the winner of our first competition.”

The 2017-18 season ends with Great Cities: Rome, featuring up-and-coming mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell. Her April performance will include Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” and the PSO will again bring something new to the table. “It has a lovely little section [with] recorded bird sounds that are played with the orchestra,” Stelluto says. “So we’re going to use those sounds, but we are also going to record some local bird calls… so they can be a part of that performance.”

Into the Future
Pianist Orion Weiss, who joins the PSO for Serenade for Strings in November, and vocalist Naomi O’Connell will also take part in Resident Artist Week. During this week, the guest artist participates in a variety of community activities, visiting schools and senior centers and offering special public performances. “Naomi is going to do a recital for our Sound Bites series on WTVP; then she will do something at Kelleher’s a couple nights later… She’s got this beautiful Irish brogue, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

As he enters his eighth year with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Stelluto says he’s excited about the future, as well as the work that has brought them to this point. “We have ended in the black for the last two years,” he notes. “To operate with that kind of artistic excellence and financial prudence at the same time is a great achievement. We’re entering our 120th anniversary year in the black… ready to move forward to the future.” a&s

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