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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 10:27 am

Omit the chorus

Illinois Symphony moves ahead with instruments only

Karen Lynne Deal, Music Director

Illinois Symphony Orchestra's 2008-09 concert season begins next week with one notable difference: For the first time in more than two decades, the repertoire will be entirely instrumental, save for an unnamed guest chorus for the "Highlights from Messiah" section of the December concert.

The change is the result of the unhappy departure of the second chorus conductor in the span of three years. Marion van der Loo was terminated in 2005 after 14 years as chorus conductor. Her successor, Richard Robert Rossi, resigned in May after contract negotiations stalled over his request for a raise [see "Same song, second verse" July 3, 2008].

Over the summer, the ISO board of directors apparently decided to proceed without a chorus, redesigning, reprinting and mailing a revised marketing brochure announcing "repertoire updates." The glossy, full-color, 16-page publication mostly matches the one mailed to subscribers earlier in the summer, except the fourth Masterworks concert in the original brochure featured Brahm's Requiem; it now features Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid Ballet Suite, Samuel Barber's violin concerto, and Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite.

The brochure and another one to follow in November were part of a planned marketing strategy, and should generate enough sales to compensate for the cost, according to a former ISO official.

The ISO also has no official administrative chief. The board offered the job to Ernie Toplis, former executive director of the Southwest Florida Symphony, but Toplis declined the job for personal reasons. In an e-mail to Illinois Times, Toplis said he had been anticipating a return to the Midwest, and was disappointed that he could not.

"I don't have to tell you that the orchestra has a great board and Karen Deal is a fantastic Music/Artistic Director," Toplis wrote.

Former executive director Cheryl Snyder is now director of development. Asked whether the ISO is still searching for an administrator, music director Karen Lynne Deal said in an e-mail that "that is a board matter."

News of the demise of the chorus trickled slowly to its members. Daniel Fry, the pianist who has for nine years accompanied the chorus during rehearsals, says he made several inquiries about the chorus before finally asking a board member "point-blank in an e-mail" about the fate of the chorus. "I was told the decision was made that the group would no longer exist," Fry says, "and at the end of that e-mail there was a thanks from the board for my years of service."

A few weeks later, Fry says, he sent an e-mail to chorus members telling them how much he had enjoyed working with them. Their responses indicated that they hadn't heard that the chorus was history.

Fry, who was paid $100 per service, says he will miss making music with the chorus. "I hope the folly of this situation is ultimately seen," he says, "because in my estimation, there's no question that the season will not be as strong without a standing choral ensemble.

"In other words, if they do Messiah with some church choirs they've put together, that's fine. But it's not the same as having a symphony chorus that rehearses as a unit. It doesn't present the music in as polished a format as it could be, and has been."

Both Rossi and van der Loo are still wielding their batons over other choral groups. Van der Loo directs the Renaissance group Prairieland Voices as well as the Springfield Choral Society, which earlier this year performed a series of concerts in Spain, and played with Kronos Quartet at Sangamon Auditorium. Rossi, director of orchestral and choral activities at Eastern Illinois University, and organist at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, will conduct a full slate of concerts at EIU, and perform Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with his chamber orchestra in the spring.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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