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After 17 years at BCPA, most Illinois Symphony Orchestra concerts in Twin Cities moving to ISU

A conductor, center, leads musicians wearing tuxedos and black formal wear in a concert hall.
Illinois Symphony Orchestra
The Illinois Symphony Orchestra, shown here with former music director Ken Lam, will move several concerts to Illinois State University's Center for Performing Arts beginning this fall.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra (ISO) will change venues this fall, moving several of its Twin City performances to Illinois State University’s Center for Performing Arts.

By moving to its main concert series to ISU, the symphony leaves a long-standing relationship with the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA). The Illinois Symphony maintains dual homes in Bloomington-Normal and Springfield. In 2021, they formed a similar partnership with the music program at University of Illinois-Springfield.

“One of the things that we look at in our growth is the educational aspects of the orchestra in the community,” said ISO executive director Trevor Orthmann, adding the orchestra has been in talks with ISU's Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts for at least five years.

“Coming out of the pandemic, things just aligned well,” he said. “So, here we are today, back at ISU, where the orchestra had performed for so many years until the development of the BCPA.”

The symphony’s concerts for kids will remain at the downtown BCPA, and occasional chamber concerts will continue to be performed at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.

The symphony moved from Braden Auditorium on ISU’s campus to the BCPA in 2005 and was one of the first tenants in the then-newly renovated theater. The new change comes amid a period of staff turnover and uncertainty at the BCPA, but Orthmann said the potential for student engagement was the main reason for switching to ISU.

“There were challenges, but that really didn’t play into the decision of going to ISU,” he said.

By email, a spokesperson for the City of Bloomington said, “While the city enjoyed the partnership with the Illinois Symphony, we understand change is inevitable and wish the organization nothing but the best as it moves to a new performance venue.”

Jean Miller, dean of ISU's Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, called the new partnership “a very big deal.”

“We’re just so excited to host them,” Miller said. “We offer beautiful acoustics in the concert hall, and I think it’s right-sized for the orchestra.”

By “right-sized,” Miller means the move is a downsizing of sorts for the orchestra. The 800-seat concert hall at ISU is small by comparison to the BCPA that can seat up to 1,200 people. The symphony said costs associated with renting each performance space are about equal. And with attendance still down due to lingering impacts of the pandemic on performing arts audiences, there’s not much risk of lost ticket revenue by moving to a smaller hall.

Beyond holding concerts on Illinois State’s campus, the orchestra also plans to partner with the university to offer master classes, providing students opportunities to work with ISO's roster of guest artists and additional mentorship with symphony staff.

“Our music directors in the past have always worked with the ISU orchestra, but this would hopefully formalize some of the things that we did and hopefully make more people aware that we are serving the Illinois State community,” Orthmann said.

“So many of our patrons are Illinois State alumni and professors,” he added. “It feels like a great fit to be coming back to ISU.”

Miller said the partnership comes amid strong wave of momentum for the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts. In 2019, a $12 million gift to the university by visual artist and ISU alumna Wonsook Kim came with naming rights for the College of Fine Arts. And plans are underway to break ground on a $62 million state-funded renovation to ISU’s fine arts complex next spring.

“We’ve got so many great things,” Miller said. “The third leg in this is bringing ISO to campus to enjoy all that we’re building here.”

The Illinois Symphony’s 2022-23 season begins Oct. 15 at ISU's Center for Performing Arts concert hall. Guest conductor Rei Hotoda will lead the orchestra in works by Kendall, Shostakovich, and by two Strausses: Johann Sr. and Jr. The symphony also is gearing up to search for a new music director to replace maestro Ken Lam, who departed in May.

Eric Stock contributed to this story.

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Lauren Warnecke is a correspondent for WGLT, focusing on arts and culture.
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