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Illinois Symphony concludes season 30 with an 'epic' tribute to the American spirit

Two men seated in a radio studio smile at the camera
Lauren Warnecke
Guest conductor Andrew Joon Choi and Illinois Symphony Assistant Conductor Jacobsen Woollen stopped by WGLT's studios ahead of "Epic Ending," a one-night-only concert concluding the orchestra's 30th season.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra (ISO) returns to Illinois State University's Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, for a season finale titled “Epic Ending” that features music by Béla Bartók, Antonin Dvořák and Michael Torke.

Guest conductor Andrew Joon Choi is back at the podium, with cellist Joshua Roman visiting to play Dvořák’s exquisite cello concerto. As the orchestra’s 30th anniversary season draws to a close, “Epic Ending” is an appropriately festive celebration of this midwestern orchestra.

“I think this program is a wonderful tribute to what American music is,” said ISO Assistant Conductor Jacobsen Woollen in an interview. “You have the Bartók ‘Concerto for Orchestra,’ which was written in the United States and incorporates his research into Hungarian folk music—and has both simple, naïve folk tunes combined with these unbelievably complicated, mathematical symmetries. Then you have the Dvořák, which incorporates folk tunes and rhythms that he absorbed during his time in the United States. You have Michael Torke, which is a tribute to the Olympics.”

Living American composer Michael Torke wrote the nine-minute, overture-esque “Javelin” in 1994 in honor of Atlanta Symphony’s 50th anniversary. It was played at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, with a bright, propulsive drive that echoes the titular field event it references.

“The ISO, through the course of the last 30 years — growing and expanding and improving upon their artistic identity — this really encapsulates what that is about,” said Choi, who recently conducted a chamber concert and returns to lead the full orchestra. “It’s a great program of choice … that showcases the facilities of what the orchestra is able to do.”

Béla Bartók fled to America as a refugee during World War II, longed for his homeland and never returned. His last finished piece, the “Concerto for Orchestra,” was commissioned just two years before he died of leukemia. Perhaps what he and Dvořák — a Czech composer who lived for a summer in an expat community in Spillville, Iowa — share in common is that their work references both American and European folk traditions.

Choi and Woollen both spent time as expats — Woollen in Vienna and Choi in Zurich, where he currently runs a nonprofit organization aimed at reinvigorating opera audiences.

Choi lived in Korea and the United States prior to moving to Europe, saying he didn't feel “like I belonged anywhere, here or there, no matter how much time passed." Arriving in Switzerland, a country whose culture is a blend of French, German and Dutch influences, Choi said, "I never really had this pressure to behave one way of the other. For me it was just about assimilating into a new world and creating that bond.”

“I had an experience that a lot of expats had,” said Woollen. “Looking back onto their home country they actually get a much clearer picture of it. I actually found myself much more eager to defend the United States in conversations I was having in Austria than I might have been before. I gained a new appreciation for the parts of the American spirit and the American culture, which of course is so hard to sum up because the essence of it is multiplicity.”

Dvořák wrote his cello concerto in 1894 while in New York City, having premiered his famous “New World” Symphony the year before. The third movement is a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina, Dvořák’s first love, who was seriously ill at the time.

It has been a decade since cellist Joshua Roman played with the Illinois Symphony. And while he is known for repurposing contemporary music, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is a fitting selection for the artist, who has been public about his struggle with long COVID.

Woollen, also a cellist, said the concerto is the “Mount Olympus, the summit of our repertoire, the crown jewel. And it’s something that growing up as a cellist, you wait, and you wait, and you wait for the right moment. Once you get there, what a cornucopia it is.”

“This concerto being written around the time of [Josefina’s] death, I always correlate the final send off in the third movement being like the spiritual sendoff of the soul rising up to heaven,” said Choi. “As artists, being able to project something that’s indescribable during this experience of 40 minutes is difficult to do. I can certainly understand Josh having a renewed perspective going through long COVID. I’m very interested to hear what he brings to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.”

The Illinois Symphony plays “Epic Ending” Saturday, May 6 at Illinois State University’s Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are $21-$63 at ilsymphony.org. ISO anticipates announcing its 2023-24 season in mid-May, including four candidates vying for the top job as music director after Ken Lam’s departure a year ago.

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