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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

ISO Holiday Pops seats young musicians with the pros — and hosts a Christmas sing-along for all

Peering through the violin section to the podium, a woman with grey hair and a Christmas sweatshirt and jeans waves her baton.
Lauren Warnecke
Maestra Deanne Bryant leads a Monday night rehearsal with the Bloomington-Normal Youth Symphony at Illinois Wesleyan University as they prepare for "Holiday Pops in the Heartland."

When it comes to central Illinois’ classical music scene, Deanne Bryant is kind of a legend.

Bryant took the helm at Bloomington-Normal Youth Symphony in 1995 — just the second person to ever lead the orchestra. Prior to that role, Bryant started the Unit 5 string program in 1969 and worked in public schools for nearly 25 years. So, this is technically her retirement.

“It’s been quite a ride — not one that I anticipated doing,” she said. “I was going to teach first grade. And here I am.”

Jacobsen Woollen, on the other hand, arrived in central Illinois last August. The Indiana native moved to Springfield after six years in Vienna and is now assistant conductor for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra (ISO). He also conducts the affiliated Illinois Symphony Youth Orchestras.

Every year for about the past decade, Bloomington-Normal Youth Symphony and the ISO come together to play a holiday-themed concert.

Woollen said Saturday’s concert at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, titled “Holiday Pops in the Heartland,” is like a big, musical family gathering.

“Part of that is bringing together many of the ensembles in both of the communities the ISO serves,” Woollen said.

That includes ISO’s professional and youth orchestras, plus the Springfield Choral Society (which Woollen also directs) and the Bloomington-Normal Youth Orchestra. As a bonus, this year local celebrity John Carter of Jack Lewis Jewelers will lead the combined ensembles in the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”

“It’s like when you bring friends together and you see them click,” Woollen said. “There’s something so exciting about that. It’s wonderful to bring all my bands together, so to speak.”

Bryant said the opportunity for youth players to sit side-by-side with professionals is motivating to them — and her.

“The kids are great,” she said. “They’re very dedicated. They’re doing this because they want to play. I bill it as, you’re going to be sitting by people who get paid to play. That keeps it fresh for them.”

“One of the things I really like about working with a youth orchestra,” added Woollen, “is that it allows you to think in a pedagogical way not only about how you want the piece to sound, but what musical skills that they need in order to make it sound that way.”

At the end of the day, they are still children, but Bryant said, “these kids are on board with what we do.”

“Even if they have a lower skill level, they’re being mentored by the students that sit ahead of them.”

And what of the audience? Holiday pops concerts are an entry point to many who may not be familiar with classical music.

In addition to an excerpt from the “Messiah,” “Holiday Pops in the Heartland” will include Calvin Custer’s “Chanukah Festival Overture,” a nod to Viennese New Year’s traditions with three Strauss works: “The Blue Danube,” “Radetzky March” and “Die Fledermaus Overture." Plus, expect to hear plenty of Christmas songs and an audience sing-along at the end.

“When you go to a concert, it should be a visceral and emotional experience,” Woollen said. “It’s sort of a variant of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Be it, and they will experience it.”

“If the conductor and the musicians can really, deeply experience the music while they’re playing it. If they can play with passion and with commitment and with emotion, that is infectious. That’s really what hooks people.”

‘Holiday Pops in the Heartland’ is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday ( Dec. 17) at Illinois State University’s Center for the Performing Arts. A few tickets remain at ilsymphony.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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