Cause for Celebration

by Beth Weimer
Photo by Beau Commanday

The Heartland Festival Orchestra looks forward on the cusp of a milestone anniversary.

Later this year, Heartland Festival Orchestra (HFO) will embark on its tenth season, and its musicians and supporters have much cause for celebration in all they’ve accomplished to reach this milestone. The orchestra was founded in 2009, amidst the depths of an economic recession, by Artistic Director and Conductor David Commanday. And despite many challenges, his passionate leadership—along with the dedicated support of staff, board members, musicians, donors and volunteers—quickly established the orchestra as a distinctive, innovative entity contributing to the fine arts of the region.

Secrets of Musical Excellence
“We have a strong volunteer base, tickets sales have been really strong, and we have a lot of people who are happy to give,” Commanday notes. “I think that’s part of the secret: how we were so successful, despite the situation with the economy when we were founded.” The orchestra has finished each of its seasons in the black, a remarkable feat for a nonprofit that has never relied on corporate donations.

Part of HFO’s mission involves giving back to the community by partnering with local nonprofits for each concert. “We tend to focus on charitable organizations whose scope is such that featuring them will have a significant impact for their budget and public awareness of their services,” he says. “It’s symbolic of our idea of what an orchestra is about, which is connection with the community.” The concept was implemented with its very first concert, and the organization even offers bus rides from Peoria to Five Points Washington for patrons who are unable to make the drive themselves.

Heartland Festival Orchestra employs a nontraditional format that compels efficiency and the utmost professionalism—assembling for rehearsals just twice, on the Friday night and Saturday afternoon before their concerts. “We’re engaging the finest professional musicians in our extended region,” Commanday notes. “We do this incredible amount of work in two rehearsals. They come really, really well prepared—and know I’m not going to waste their time.”

Commanday draws from experience gained throughout his career to inspire musical excellence, emphasizing the craft involved in rehearsal technique with so little time available. He’ll focus on parts of selections he knows to be troublesome, and sometimes won’t do more than a single run-through of a piece before the concert, knowing he can trust the musicians’ ability to follow him in the moment. When a single performance may involve 25 charts, more than 1,200 individual parts of music for 45 musicians, and just two rehearsals to pull it all together, competence and confidence are key. And they deliver quite beautifully, playing a wide-ranging repertoire with precision, vitality and finesse.

The musicians appreciate the challenge, as well as the brevity, because they can come in, perform their best, and move on to other engagements. Many travel from Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Macomb and even Chicago to participate, often staying with local hosts during performance weekends to reduce their commutes. And despite the intense rehearsals, HFO’s culture remains more relaxed than is typical of many orchestras, as is evident in the smiles and laughter after performing a piece.

The signature balloon drop during Strauss' Radetzky March, January 2017. Photo by Ronald Hedlund.

New Ways of Engagement
Of course, the most important element is the music itself, a showcase for HFO’s versatility. Six concerts are performed each season, in addition to smaller chamber music events and fundraisers, and each varies in style and structure. Some highlight the traditional pillars of classical music, such as “Maestro’s Choice” in March, which will include pieces by Mozart, Schumann and Brahms with guest pianist Adam Neiman. Others juxtapose popular selections with traditional orchestrations or feature a unique theme—like the “James Bond, 007” concert in May. The “Jazz in Spring” concert in April will feature a performance of Peer Gynt’s Grieg, played side-by-side with talented students from Youth Music Illinois, where Commanday also serves as music director.

Each performance offers something for everyone, and each piece is presented with a passion that is palpable and delightful to experience. Audiences look forward to HFO traditions like the festive balloon drop at its annual “New Year’s Greeting,” as well as on-stage surprises throughout the season. “I tend to be somewhat improvisational, which can be challenging for my collaborators at times, but it’s part of my temperament,” Commanday explains. “Making music needs to be very much in the moment.”

It’s a refreshing approach in a field that often relies on rigid formalities. Signature touches like the musicians’ casual, colorful attire and the large-screen video projection of the stage are intended to make the HFO experience approachable and inviting to all, without diminishing the performance.

And just as the orchestra has embraced new ideas since its inception, it will clearly continue to explore the possibilities in the years to come. Its tenth season may be its most exciting yet, with the return of three popular guest soloists. Rachel Barton Pine opens the season in September with Brahms' glorious Violin Concerto, while Grammy-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux takes on Rodrigo's Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre in October. Other performances will incorporate unique twists on jazz and traditional Celtic tunes—plus a water-themed concert with a community arts element as its centerpiece. Guest pianist Michael Brown, a 2018 recipient of the Lincoln Center Awards for Emerging Artists, will round out the season with Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

For Commanday, it’s all about sharing the power of live music with the community while discovering new ways to engage the audience. “Season Ten will be pretty special,” he affirms. Approaching music with infectious enthusiasm, he invites the audience to join in the adventure. a&s

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