The Peoria Symphony Orchestra added the popular Bravo! performances to its regular season several years ago, and they’ve been a hit with audiences ever since. This time out, the PSO is leaving Broadway and heading in a new direction: big bands. “Bravo! Big Bands is a delightful journey into the world of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, with plenty of side trips for the likes of Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart,” said PSO Music Director David Commanday.

As with previous performances, Bravo! Big Bands attracted renowned guest stars to the project. “The show features Michael McGuire, who dazzled Peoria with his appearance here in last year’s Bravo! Broadway, and Lynn Roberts, a classy lady of jazz who has thrilled audiences around the country,” Commanday said.

The PSO’s Dan Aspell said Bravo! performances were added because the PSO believed they perfectly fit the Pops criteria for a symphony orchestra. “It’s popular music that appeals to a large, diverse audience and also involves the majority of the symphony’s musicians. The musicians enjoy the chance to play music together they normally don’t encounter during the regular symphony season.” 

For those who haven’t taken in a Bravo! production yet, it’s a bit of a departure from traditional symphony offerings. And the upcoming performance makes one more change: a cabaret-style setting in the Civic Center’s Exhibit Hall C. “The audience will be able to visit with friends and buy refreshments during the show—something concerts in the Theater can’t match. Open seating at tables of 10 will be available, as will a full bar,” said Aspell.

“We’ll set up the orchestra—with almost all of our regular players—with a big band built in; it’ll be complete with piano and rhythm section,” Commanday explained. “The show features solo moments for the players, in the classic big band style. Jazz man and arranger Bill Holcombe will perform, adding a strong dose of veteran Big Apple authenticity to the great local jazz talent.”

As with all of the Bravo! productions, Commanday will take the baton for the show, though he said he can’t take credit for putting the production together. “These shows, including the Bravo! Broadway performances, are packages created by John Such Management and designed for orchestras to include in their Pops seasons. They typically include singers from a stellar roster and top-quality arrangements designed for performance by symphonic orchestra. In the case of Bravo! Big Bands, the instrumentation is slightly altered to allow for the addition of the classic big band group: clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, and trombones—and naturally, piano, bass, and jazz drum set.”

Commanday said he enjoys the Bravo! performances for several reasons. “Beyond the sheer professionalism of the arrangements, which make rehearsal and successful performance much easier to achieve, I love the brilliant pacing of the shows. Each performance has a shape which enhances the audience’s experience of each separate piece, and which culminates in a thrilling close. The Bravo! shows have the best music, the best singers, and the best flow—they’re irresistible.”

The best singers, in this case, both have very impressive resumes. Maguire is perhaps best known to theatergoers for his Broadway debut performance as Enjolras in the original Broadway company of Les Miserables, for which he won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and Theatre World Award. In November, Maguire recreated that role for the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which has been broadcast nationally on PBS and featured an all-star cast from around the world.

An accomplished actor, Maguire was featured in the critically acclaimed film Where the Day Takes You. He also appeared with Michelle Pfeiffer in Deep End of the Ocean and will be seen in the soon-to-be-released films Go Fish and LA Pictures.

Roberts started her career with Charlie Spivak at age 15, beating out six other children for the job. She spent one year with Spivak, a year with Vincent Lopez, five years with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, 10 years with Benny Goodman, and four years with Harry James. She also shared the spotlight with Sammy Kay for a year and a half on the ABC show Music from Manhattan. Additionally, she sang with the Pied Pipers for many years.

Her career momentum led her to stellar performances throughout the world, and many famous clubs became routine stops on her busy schedule: The Café Rouge at the Statler Hotel in Manhattan, the Coconut Grove and the Palladium in L.A., and the renowned Paramount Theatre in New York with the Dorsey brothers and Frank Sinatra. Roberts has the distinction of being the only female singer to have sung with all of these superstar band leaders.

Maguire and Roberts will bring their talent and years of experience to a program which includes favorites such as “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I’m Getting Sentimental,” “Night and Day,” “Unforgettable,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “All Or Nothing At All,” “Over the Rainbow,” and a Sinatra medley.

With the previous success of the Bravo! Broadway shows, it may seem risky to tackle another era, but Aspell said it was time to add something new to the mix. “The PSO wanted to give our audience a fresh show, so it went with the big band sound this year.” 

The Bravo! Big Bands performance is different, but it’s just one more much-anticipated show in what’s been a very successful season so far for the PSO, which at 105 years old, is the 15th oldest symphony in the U.S. “The success of the season is the result of many years of progress—our players have been working hard individually, and their ability to play together beautifully has grown, along with their personal technique. I think we all share a pride in the orchestra’s growth, and all want to see and hear the next level that can be achieved. Put it together with programs people want to hear and dynamic soloists, and you’ve got a successful season,” Commanday said.

As next season takes shape, it’s already clear the PSO will continue to flourish. Aspell said announcements regarding the 2003-2004 season will come in early April, but he previewed several coming attractions. “Already set is our opening gala concert, featuring renowned violinist Hilary Hahn, and concerts featuring Brahms’ ‘Requiem,’ a return of this year’s crowd-pleasing pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi in a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 4,’ plus an all-Mozart ‘Amadeus Festival.’”

Bravo! Big Bands, which is being sponsored by the Shoppes at Grand Prairie, takes place at 8 p.m., April 12, at the Peoria Civic Center. Tickets cost $30.

For more information, call 671-1096. AA!