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‘More of the different’

by Linda Smith Brown | Photos by Beau Commanday, courtesy of Heartland Festival Orchestra |
Conductor David Commanday
Conductor David Commanday

That’s what David Commanday’s Heartland Festival Orchestra continues to give after 15 years, and audiences appreciate it

Where has the time gone?

It has been 15 years since Heartland Festival Orchestra (HFO) was formed, bringing innovation, collaboration and professional music to local audiences.

During that time, Artistic Director and Conductor David Commanday has delighted audiences with programs headlined by nationally and internationally known soloists, sometimes featuring ballet or modern dance, often debuting new music or a reimagining of a classic.

Technology also has been a standard of HFO concerts. Video from three to five different camera angles on stage is projected onto a screen above the performers during an HFO performance. When licensing permits, the video is then uploaded to YouTube, which has a library of past HFO performances. Two performances have utilized photochoreography, where still images are projected in synchronization with the live music.

An ’art form’ for the masses

Heartland Festival Orchestra came about after Commanday’s surprising departure from the Peoria Symphony Orchestra in 2008 after 10 years as the music director.

He had never considered founding an orchestra. “I was entrepreneurial and had initiative,” but creating an orchestra was “not in my plans,” he said.

“Naturally, it’s been challenging,” if also exciting and rewarding, he said.

The orchestra’s creation was a collaborative effort. “We had a team of musicians and music lovers and supporters who got together to create the Heartland Festival Orchestra,” Commanday said. “There were people that were hoping I’d remain in the area after my time with the PSO was finished. And that included a bunch of musicians who’d been playing for me for most or all of those 10 years with the symphony, and a lot of concertgoers.

“I am passionate about the art form,” said Commanday. “Music is wonderful and it’s powerful and it works on everybody. We need to bring our art form to more people who want to hear it, who want to experience it. So that’s what we’re doing.”

A season of uncommon creativity

The first concert of the 15th season, presented last month, was a performance of video game music featuring segments from favorite games, as well as two games created by the Bradley University game design department with original music from the Bradley music department, said Commanday.

Next up, on Oct. 28, at Five Points Washington, HFO will combine film with orchestra. “We’ll be showing the original Phantom of the Opera silent film with a live symphonic score composed for the film by current-day movie composer Craig Safan,” said Commanday. The performance will include soprano soloist Miracle Amah, assistant professor of voice at Bradley.

On Feb. 3, 2024 at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, HFO will present a tribute to an American legend who needs no last name: Aretha. Drama Desk Award nominee Capathia Jenkins and three-time Grammy-nominated artist Ryan Shaw will perform Aretha Franklin’s biggest hits. The sounds of a big band orchestra, a backup vocal trio from New York, the Heritage Ensemble and ICC choirs will be included in the Queen of Soul homage.

On March 2, 2024 at the ICC Performing Arts Center, HFO will present Musical Fables, showcasing the tales of Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals, narrated by local radio personality Greg Batton. The program also includes Concerto for Two Pianos featuring Victor Cayres and Paul Johnston.

On April 6, 2024, HFO will present Beethoven’s Fifth in Surround Sound, a unique opportunity for concertgoers to immerse themselves in the music. Presented in the warehouse space of Venue Chisca in Peoria’s Warehouse District, the audience will be sitting among the musicians during the performance.

As Commanday is known to address the audience during HFO performances, “I’ll be talking about how Beethoven works. I’ll be talking about how Beethoven creates magic in our minds when we’re listening to it,” he said.

‘We feel like we’re a part of something really spectacular’
— Tuba player Andy Rummel

On May 25, 2024 at Five Points Washington, HFO will present a patriotic program featuring the works of George Gershwin and Morton Gould. The centerpiece of the program will be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which next year is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The evening will also include American Salute, An American in Paris, Pops Hoedown and John Phillip Sousa’s Stars & Stripes Forever. Soloing will be pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner.

A different kind of orchestra

So, how does it feel being a founding musician of a new orchestra? “It’s a pretty spectacular feeling, actually,” said Andy Rummel, principal tuba with HFO.

“I just remember the very first concert was so electric and everyone was so excited,” Rummel said. That has continued because HFO has always done things differently than other orchestras.

“We don’t wear tuxedos; they’ve got the screen and cameras. David talks to the audience and it’s very much an interactive experience,” said Rummel. “That is such a welcome change from most of the orchestras I’ve played with.

“I have a lot of pride. There are several of us that have been there since the very beginning. We feel like we’re a part of something really spectacular, instead of just hired to play.”

So what’s in store for HFO? “More of the different,” said Commanday.

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area

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