Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Prairie Ensemble (1996–2014)

The chamber orchestra known as The Prairie Ensemble played its final concert last night. For eighteen years, this orchestra flourished in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. How wrong it feels now to write about The Prairie Ensemble in the past tense.

Kevin Kelly, the orchestra’s music director and conductor for all its eighteen years, always assembled programs with unusual, unexpected repertoire. Just three examples of such repertoire, from many years of concert-going: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original orchestration for thirteen instruments, excerpts from Duke Ellington’s The River, and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Chôros no. 7. Last night’s program:

Benjamin Britten, Soirées musicales

George Butterworth, The Banks of Green Willow

Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Mary Leathers Chapman, soloist)

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 6 in F Major
And if you, like me, never even heard of George Butterworth, that was the point: the opportunity to hear something unexpected and surprising and beautiful. New music, from 1913.

Last night’s performance was a great one, which makes the orchestra’s end that much sadder. The descriptive notes for the first and last movements of the Beethoven no. 6 — “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside,” “Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm” — made me think of this concert as an occasion for happiness and gratitude. For two hours or so, the world was at peace.

My wife Elaine Fine played viola in The Prairie Ensemble for many years. She has written two posts — one, two — about last night’s concert.

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