Kevin Kelly has four jobs, and they're all about making noise. He hosts "Live and Local" on WILL-FM (90.9), and directs three distinctly different musical groups - the East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra, the choir at Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church and The Prairie Ensemble - a small orchestra known for its quirky programming and unstuffy presentation.
The Prairie Ensemble ...
performs April 28 at Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Ave., Champaign. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m., preceded by Kelly's concert talk at 7, and features soprano Ollie Watts Davis, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Buckley, and actors Joi Hoffsommer and Henson Keys. Amasong also will perform. For tickets, call 217-355-9077 or order online.
"I constantly feel like I'm not doing a very good job at anything," Kelly says. But he has thrived at each of these gigs. Under his direction, the youth orchestra has grown from fewer than a dozen local music students to a regional group of 60. The Prairie Ensemble - a whimsical idea Kelly hatched with a handful of friends more than 15 years ago - will be performing its 57th concert April 28. And at WILL, where Kelly hosted drive-time classical music programming for more than a decade, then-program director Jake Schumacher created "Live and Local," the noon-hour interview and music show, specifically for Kelly.
He was still a graduate student, earning dual master's degrees in orchestral and choral conducting, working at the UI Library and waiting tables on the side, when he was hired to conduct the youth orchestra in 1993. He has been at the other jobs since 1996, when he received multiple job offers within a three-month span - all just after resolving to leave Illinois.
"I had decided to go somewhere like Boston," he said. "I figured that even if I just wait tables there, maybe there would be more professional opportunities. But then suddenly, these other things came up."
The Prairie Ensemble was born about July 1996, out of Kelly's effort to gather a group of musicians to run through some pieces he had agreed to conduct for a concert in his hometown, Chambersburg, Pa. As he called friends to participate, he found himself having to answer questions about the purpose and intent of the event. When he met with a few of those friends for coffee, they decided to form an ensemble.
"We started asking ourselves: If we were to start a group, why would we do it and what would it be about? And what we came up with was, essentially, The Prairie Ensemble," Kelly said.
The group's mission statement, he said, is "to make first-rate music fun, approachable and affordable." They have developed a reputation for creative programming, playing pieces by lesser-known composers as well as better-known composers' more obscure works. For example, the April 28 concert will feature "Music for a Farce," by Paul Bowles; Suite From "Much Ado About Nothing," by Erich Korngold; as well as pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The ensemble avoids all the formal trappings that can make classical concerts intimidating. Instead of tuxedos, the musicians wear bright colors. Instead of huge concert halls, the group performs in the more intimate settings of churches and nightclubs, where the audience is closer to the performers. And Kelly discourages anyone from addressing him as "maestro."
"I'm just the guy who happens to be conducting," he said. "At some point, in order to get a rehearsal done, I have to say this is how it's going to go. That's not me on a power trip; it's just that somebody has got to decide, and I'm the guy up there. If you have a better idea, talk to me about it. You may be right."
Kelly's four jobs dovetail, revolving around music. Asked to pinpoint his top talent, he gives what some might consider a surprising response. "I think I'm a good listener," he said.
For this reason, he prepares for his "Live and Local" interviews with some printed biographical notes in front of him, but no scripted questions. "I've heard too many interviews where you can tell the interviewer had questions written down, because they don't listen to the answer to the first one - they just ask the second one," he said.
The more famous the interviewee, the more Kelly is tempted to scribble down a query or two, and yet, the more futile the effort would be.
"What am I going to ask them that they haven't answered a hundred times? Probably nothing. So why sweat it? I just try to get a conversation started and go from there," Kelly said. "The most important aspect of my radio job is to be able to listen. If you're not listening as an interviewer, you might as well just not show up in the first place."
As a conductor, Kelly typically does most of the talking in rehearsals, but the suggestions and directions he issues from the podium have to come in response to what he hears, whether it's a bassoon coming in too soon or a cello melody that needs to be brought out. Beyond that, Kelly said, the job demands listening to the musicians as people. "I try to be a facilitator," he said. "I'm a conductor, but more in the electrical sense."