Local fans of classical and symphonic music are in for another treat in the vein of 2001’s World Class Weekend, featuring Andre Watts and Itzhak Perlman, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs May 24 at the Peoria Civic Center. Unfortunately, if you don’t have tickets already, you’re out of luck. But if you aren’t able to catch Ma’s performance, take comfort in the fact that it signals the beginning of an annual treat, courtesy of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra: the World Artist Series.

Ma and More

Peoria Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Commanday said Ma is coming to Peoria as a concerto soloist in an orchestral concert. "What’s different is that his concerto, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, will be performed last on the program. It’s a major work-in fact, the best cello concerto ever written, in most opinions-and the work and the soloist deserve pride of place."

Commanday said Ma’s appearance with the PSO has been something Commanday has been interested in since he arrived in Peoria. "He and I collaborated in 1995 on the world premiere of a piece I commissioned for my Boston orchestra. The rehearsals and performance were pure joy, and the piece went on to win the Grawemeyer Prize, a huge award, principally on the strength of that performance. We’ve been friends since college, and each new musical interaction makes the relationship grow. The long process here involved lining up board members’ understanding and enthusiasm for the idea of the concert and then many letters of phone calls, watching for the opportunity to present itself. Yo-Yo was for it from the start, but his calendar carries incredible pressure for every performance date."

He said the booking process begins years ahead, but getting a confirmed date doesn’t necessarily happen years in advance. "In this case, we began working four years ago, and confirmation came about a year and a half ago. Artists like Yo-Yo do perform in places like Peoria, but it’s always a special and rare occasion."

One reason superstar performances are rare is due to the fees attached to these programs. "Naturally, the fee is in a different orbit from that of many lesser known musicians, great through they may be," Commanday said. "This has to do with the fame and drawing power, of course. The PSO built a special budget, which included important support from corporate and individual sponsors. Gaining the support of AmerenCILCO, Methodist Medical Center, Caterpillar Inc., Rita Kress, and Anne and David Vaughan went a long way in securing Yo-Yo Ma."

Commanday said the most challenging aspect of putting together a performance like the one featuring Ma is in choosing what to perform, thereby ruling out so many other wonderful choices. "The best part will be the performance itself. There’s no soloist alive who gives more energy and joy to his fellow performers than Yo-Yo. The fact that he’s a personal friend just deepens the experience and pleasure, which I’m delighted to share with my friends and symphony supporters here. It will be a concert to remember."

Securing international music sensations is becoming a more frequent occasion, which Commanday said is partially due to Peoria’s developing reputation for welcoming these artists. "And the PSO is developing a reputation for providing an outstanding performing partnership with them. They’re enjoying the performances, and the players and I are inspired by our collaboration."

With this thought at the fore, the World Artist Series was born. "The Series is intended to showcase extraordinary artists, whose abilities and careers place them among the handful of the most elite performers in the world," Commanday said. "These performances cost more to present, so, naturally, the ticket price will be higher. I presented the idea to the board as a way to reach new audiences and to reward our traditional audience members-the subscribers. How wonderful it will be not to have to travel to Chicago or New York to hear the best of the best. Another part of this is that the audience will grow in musical sophistication and develop an increasing appreciation of the subtle ways such artists stand out. When you import such artistic riches, the community is enriched."

Commanday said he’s currently working on planning for the 2006 artist and beyond, since 2005 is already set. "Next year we’ll have Bobby McFerrin, an extraordinary musician and performer, who’s best known for his hit song, ’Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ He has an incredible voice of vast range, and is famous for replacing instrumental voices with his own in some of the great classics. He’s also a very fun performer and increasingly active as a conductor. He’ll conduct and sing April 9, 2005."

The timing of the concerts will depend on the artists’ schedules, he said, so nothing is set in stone on the calendar. For now, however, the PSO is hoping to schedule the World Artist Series performer at the end of the season each year.

A Triumphant Finale

Before the World Artist Series kicks off, the PSO performs one last concert of the regular season: "Triumphant Finale," which takes place May 1 at the Peoria Civic Center. "This will be a marvelous program," Commanday said. "It’s got a Scandinavian backbone, featuring Danish composer Karl Nielsen and Finnish composer Jan Sibelius. It opens with one of the greatest sunrises ever depicted in music-Nielsen’s Helios Overture. The work depicts one day in the life of the sun and will start this program eloquently. Next comes Nielsen’s fascinating, colorful, and engaging concerto for flute and orchestra, with Thomas Jensen as soloist. Jensen made a very strong impression here recently in a recital/master class visit to Bradley University. The concert concludes with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, whose ending offers one of the most satisfying musical triumphs ever crafted."

What audience members may not be aware of-unless part of a concert is cancelled-is that post-September 11 security can be a factor in the appearance of international musical stars, which has impacted the PSO’s final concert. "We’ve had this kind of trouble twice now: once for a vocal soloist coming from Mexico, and now for Thomas Jensen, who’s coming from Denmark," Commanday explained. "The problem is that the process of securing a visa has become much more complicated for foreign artists. The whole procedure is much more involved and time consuming-and not always possible to complete in the time available."

Hopefully, such trouble won’t plague next season’s schedule, which Commanday said will feature great variety and contrast, including familiar masterworks and completely unknown works. "We’ll have jazzy and popular elements, as well as one of the finest romantic masterpieces written-Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Our January concert is a tribute to World War II veterans, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory. That concert will include Gerschwin’s Concert in F for piano and orchestra, with Jeffrey Siegel as soloist. There are many more surprises and treasures to be found, so watch for our subscription brochure with all of the details."

For more information, call 671-1098. AA!