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

Changes are afoot at Illinois Symphony — but for now, they’re ‘Breathing Deeply’

An image of a flowering tree branch is partially obscured by a beige box with text reading "Breathing Deeply, immersion in art, music and poetry."
First United Methodist Church of Normal
"Breathing Deeply" is a collaboration between First United Methodist Church of Normal and the Illinois Symphony. The free concert takes place Sunday.

A concert this weekend in Normal reminds art lovers to take a deep breath amid what, for some, remains a chaotic and disorienting time.

First United Methodist Church of Normal’s “Breathing Deeply” was scheduled to take place before the pandemic, but the title feels more relevant now than ever. With poetry, a woodwind quintet supplied by the Illinois Symphony, and art by the late local artist Harold Gregor, “Breathing Deeply” draws inspiration from Midwest landscapes and invites reflection about our home in central Illinois. The concert is Sunday at 3 p.m.

“It was actually program that we performed about four years ago,” said ISO executive director Trevor Orthmann, “that was curated by one of our oboists, David Cyzak, who at that time was living in Peoria and teaching at Bradley University. A lot of this music really relates to living here on the prairie and plains in central Illinois.”

Musical repertoire selected for the program includes arrangements for woodwind quintet — that’s a chamber group combining flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn—of traditional tunes centered around breadbasket landscapes. There is a version of “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and William Grant Still’s “Miniatures for Woodwind Quintet,” based on five folk songs like “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Jesus is a Rock in the Weary Land.” A collection of songs by Percy Grainger inspired by the Australian-American’s trip to England completes the program.

Artist Harold Gregor, whose work will accompany the music and various poetry selections, was a longtime patron and supporter of the Illinois Symphony. Born and raised in Michigan, the Midwesterner didn’t start painting landscapes until he moved from California to Bloomington in 1970. He died in 2018.

“(Gregor’s) artwork captures Illinois about as good as any artist could,” Orthmann said. “You look at one of his artworks and it says, yes, this definitely is central Illinois.”

“Breathing Deeply” is part of a series on religion, culture and the arts, made possible by an endowment from Margaret Parret established at the church in 2000. Parret, a Twin City native and First United parishioner who died in 2009, was a prominent figure in the arts community. She was an Illinois State University speech and drama professor from 1946-1977, and host of a children’s storytelling program on WJBC radio.

By Orthmann’s estimation, the thing that makes art in central Illinois special is this type of interconnectedness and collaboration, exemplified by Parret and Gregor’s commitment to multiple community arts organizations.

“The great thing about the community is collaboration and working with others,” he said. “You all may appeal to a certain group of people, and then when you collaborate, you’re getting people who support the different organizations coming together. It’s sort of like the roots of a tree that tangle together. You’re not out there on your own trying to make it.”

The ISO is not without some tumult at the tail end of its 2021-22 season. Orthmann, who will soon complete his 13th season with the ISO (which has dual hubs in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal), is in the process of hiring a new Youth Symphony director, who serves as associate conductor for the main orchestra. The ISO additionally announced May 16 that this season will also be the last for Maestro Ken Lam, who spent five years with the organization. Lam plans to continue as artistic advisor for two years as the search for a new director takes place.

“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we will be announcing where Ken is going,” Orthmann said. “He loves central Illinois and being here, but there’s an opportunity calling that can’t be turned down.”

This will be the third change in artistic leadership since Orthmann’s arrival. With no apprehension or nervousness about the process ahead, he expressed excitement about the energy and freshness change can bring to an orchestra.

“It’s interesting to see different styles and personalities, and what they do with the orchestra,” he said. “So, it’s a very engaging time for the orchestra and for the community.”

“Breathing Deeply” takes place at First United Methodist Church of Normal. Admission is free. Stick around after the concert for cookies and conversation. More information at normalfumc.org.

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