CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Music will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a weekend of concerts.
The concerts, from April 29-May 1, will show the breadth of the school’s music programs, with performances by jazz ensembles, choirs, orchestras, the Jupiter String Quartet, voice and violin faculty members and Lyric Theatre students, as well as Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride. The anniversary celebration performances will take place at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Smith Memorial Hall.
In one of the weekend’s highlights, the UI Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Singers and Oratorio Society will perform Johannes Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem,” a profound and much-loved work, said Andrew Megill, the director of choral activities for the School of Music.
“It is one of the most loved pieces in the choral-orchestral repertoire, and it’s one of my favorite pieces,” he said.
The performance is Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at KCPA. Its music is especially appropriate now, Megill said.
“It’s a piece of comfort and consolation for people who have been in grief and loss. Everyone during the period of COVID has lost something, even if they have been spared losing a loved one. The piece is so full of radiant comfort, it seemed right to turn the page and end the chapter of this year,” he said.
“It’s one of the greatest pieces in the Western art tradition that really grapples with one of the core problems of being human, that we are mortal and lose ones we love. There is the grief of that, but also the deep joy of having such beautiful connections and a sense of transcendent love,” Megill said.
The 80-minute piece features two solos, which will be sung by New York-based soprano Courtenay Budd and voice professor and baritone Nathan Gunn. Budd is well-suited to the difficult soprano solo, which projects both innocence and motherly comfort, Megill said.
Gunn sang the baritone solo in his 1997 Carnegie Hall debut, in a concert marking the 100th anniversary of Brahms’ death. “It was an important milestone in his career, and it’s exciting to do this with someone who has a long association with the piece,” Megill said.
Soprano and voice professor Ollie Watts Davis will perform “Four Spirituals” with the Jupiter String Quartet. The arrangements of the spirituals are by composition-theory professor Stephen Andrew Taylor.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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The concert will open with the Jupiter String Quartet and soprano Ollie Watts Davis, a voice professor and director of the Black Chorus. They will perform “Four Spirituals,” a 2014 arrangement by composition-theory professor Stephen Andrew Taylor.
The Jupiter String Quartet, whose members are artists-in-residence in the School of Music, commissioned Taylor to arrange the music for its recording project “Rootsongs.” The quartet wanted to work with Davis and also to celebrate the influence of Black spirituals on other works on the album.
Davis gave Taylor her favorite arrangements of four spirituals: “Give Me Jesus,” “Ride Up in the Chariot,” “Deep River” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
“They were chosen for their authentic capture of the various expressions of the creators – faith, sorrow, joy, hope – and for deeply personal reasons. I return to these settings often for shelter, as refuge, for strength and for reflection,” Davis said.
Taylor said his versions are an homage to the composers of the arrangements that Davis chose.
“I was immediately struck by the beauty of these arrangements. I followed exactly their melodies, as well as the form of each one. At the same time, I tried to take advantage of the string quartet's different possibilities for harmony, rhythm and timbre,” Taylor said.
He used fast polyrhythms for “Ride Up in the Chariot,” and “Deep River” has the violins and viola “sliding in slow motion over a rolling, undulating cello,” Taylor said.
“Steve uses the sound of the strings in the quartet to beautiful effect while honoring the original compositions,” said cellist Daniel McDonough of the Jupiter String Quartet.
Davis said it is especially meaningful for her to perform Taylor’s arrangements because she was able to work with him and to have music written specifically for her.
“While I know numerous arrangements of this repertoire, the Taylor arrangements have subtle surprises that keep me present, accountable and in the moment. He clearly studied the arrangements I gave him, yet he created something uniquely his,” Davis said.
String playing is part of the legacy of African American music, and performing with the Jupiter String Quartet is a rich experience, she said.
The School of Music will hold an anniversary reception in the KCPA lobby after the Saturday evening performances.
McBride will perform his work “The Movement Revisited – A Musical Tribute to Four Icons” Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at KCPA as the culminating New Awakenings concert series performance. Barrington Coleman, a professor of vocal jazz studies in the School of Music and the director of the Varsity Men’s Glee Club, initiated the New Awakenings concert series to reflect on the effects of the pandemic and the movement for racial justice in the last few years, and to offer hope and healing.
“The Movement Revisited” – a 70-minute jazz-influenced composition – pays tribute to civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali through words and music. McBride will perform with some of his band members and the School of Music’s Concert Jazz Band, led by jazz performance chair Chip McNeill. Vocal performers include a chorus of singers from campus and community choirs, as well as guest artists.
Also on Sunday, a special concert by the Illinois Wind Symphony and Wind Orchestra at 3 p.m. will be followed by a reception in the KCPA lobby for conductors Steve Peterson and Beth Peterson, who are retiring from the music faculty.
A full schedule of performances is available online.