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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events.

Illinois Symphony’s top priority this season? Play music everyone loves

A conductor, center, leads musicians wearing tuxedos and black formal wear in a concert hall.
Illinois Symphony Orchestra
Maestro Ken Lam leads the Illinois Symphony in a recent concert. The ISO returns to the Twin Cities on Jan. 28 for "Incredibly Italian" at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

The Illinois Symphony returns to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 28 with its latest concert, “Incredibly Italian.” The program features works by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schumann — three composers who weren’t exactly Italian, but drew inspiration from the bel paese.

As Maestro Ken Lam and the Illinois Symphony (ISO) prepared for their return to live performances during the ongoing pandemic, their priority was to select music everyone would enjoy.

“There was a whole season that orchestras were not performing,” said Lam. “So, one of the things I really wanted to do was pick repertoire that the orchestra will enjoy playing. Of course, we also wanted repertoire that the audience would really enjoy listening to.”

Lam said German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 4: Italian” is one such tune, known for its bright and jovial optimism — and its difficulty. Often used as an audition selection for violinists, Lam said the piece is revered among orchestral musicians, calling it “one of the greatest symphonies ever written.”

“What I wanted to do was give people what they love about classical music,” he said.

Mendelssohn serves as an anchor for the trio of works comprising “Incredibly Italian,” of which violinist Sayaka Shoji’s performance of Robert Schumann’s “Violin Concerto” is a major highlight. The internationally acclaimed violinist routinely selects lesser-known and rarely played works. She specifically suggested the composer’s solo violin concerto — an exquisite piece unearthed decades after it was written — for her Illinois Symphony debut.

“Schumann had a difficult life,” Lam said. “He got the recognition he deserved late. There was an episode in which he tried to take his life. He was put in an asylum and died two years after. The ‘Violin Concerto’ is one of the later works of Schumann.”

The program opens with the “Overture to Don Giovanni,” an Italian opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Decidedly dark for the typically whimsical composer, the work contrasts with Mendelssohn’s bright, sunny gaze at the southern European country, a place and a culture that drew the attention and fascination of many classical and romantic era composers.

“(Don Giovanni) is one of Mozart’s best-known operas,” said Lam. “It’s got everything in it, drama and so on. But it’s not heavy in that sense. It’s still Mozart.”

An ISO spokesperson said audiences have responded positively to Lam’s desire for “really good tunes” this season.

Attendance is down slightly from pre-pandemic levels, but enthusiasm remains high and the pandemic has not swayed dedicated orchestra-goers from showing up. The Illinois Symphony follows COVID protocols established by each venue where they play.

The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts currently requires masks in the theater, but does not check for proof of vaccination. Maestro Lam and the musicians (aside from those playing wind instruments) also wear masks on stage. The orchestra also adopted a highly flexible ticket exchange policy and strongly encourages patrons who feel unwell to stay home.

“We are extremely grateful to be making music together,” Lam said. “You can feel the vibe in the auditorium. Everybody wanted to be there.”

The Illinois Symphony performs "Incredibly Italian" at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets and more information are available at ilsymphony.org.

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