Arts & Entertainment

Surprises Await in Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s New Season

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An exciting, yet challenging lineup is in store for Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s 2017/2018 season. Mark your calendar now and take a peek at what’s to come.

The Rockford Symphony Orchestra is soaring to new realms for its 2017/2018 season.

The Rockford Symphony Orchestra is soaring to new realms for its 2017/2018 season.

Science. The Reformation. Fantasy. Classic organ. Country. They all play a role in the Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s (RSO) 2017/2018 season, making it one of the most remarkable and challenging ever presented.

“I usually start about a year ahead, in September, with between a dozen and 20 ideas,” says Steve Larsen, RSO music director. “I always have a few thoughts, plus I listen to the requests and suggestions of our patrons.”

Already underway, the new RSO season greeted audiences with a salute to “Star Wars and More” and “The Universe at an Exhibition” featuring the celestial photography of Dr. Jose Francisco Salgado.

And that was only the beginning.

Picking a Theme

As far as themes are concerned, Larsen points to the 2014 season that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

“I look at significant events or universal interests, then start whittling down the list and looking for soloists to match the musical content,” he says. “Some stand out while others take a lot of time and research. Also, I like to include composers whom we have not featured in recent years as well as newcomers to the concert scene. I prefer to avoid the ‘war horses,’ composers who are played a lot. Basically, it’s a juggling act.”

Larsen also spends a lot of time hoping it all comes together smoothly. There’s a significant amount of second-guessing.

“Sometimes it’s a spooky occurrence, the way two or three pieces come together with the perfect soloist,” he says. “It’s as if, subconsciously, I knew they were connected but didn’t realize it until I put it all together.”

Larsen loves suggestions from his audiences and the public. It’s good information about what people do and don’t want to hear.

By February, the upcoming season is nearly booked. It can be a challenge for Larsen to find professional artists.

“I know bigger orchestras start as much as two years out, and that can make booking tough,” Larsen says. “Many of the really great artists are taken by the time I start looking.”

Unforeseen events can also make producing a successful season challenging.

“One of my soloists had to cancel because she was involved in an accident,” Larsen explains. “That was unfortunate, but following through on the science theme, I looked at other options and found ‘Celestial Suite’ by a fairly new composer, James Stevenson. His suite is perfect because it falls neatly into my opening science theme.”

Still to Come This Season

RSO will offer a first-of-its-kind premiere in Rockford – the 1939 movie classic “The Wizard of OZ,” on Oct. 28, featuring the original film as a backdrop to the full music score performed live by the orchestra with actor audio completely intact.

Then, on Nov. 11 and in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, RSO features Brahms’ “German Requiem,” a musical translation of the Bible, plus Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” based on Martin Luther’s Chorale.

“‘German Requiem’ is a message of hope and comfort for survivors,” Larsen says. “The Sermon on the Mount says, ‘blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.’”

One of the most popular RSO concerts, the Holiday Pops, brings the joyful music of the season to the Coronado on Dec. 16 and 17, and will feature harmony vocals by Five by Design.

Another seasonal program that’s exciting to Larsen is an organ concert on Jan 13.

“We’ll be treated to the fantasy classic ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ by Hector Olivera, possibly the finest organist in the world,” he says.

RSO will present its first country music concert on March 3, showcasing classic country favorites by two guest performers – Rachel Potter from “The X Factor” and Patrick Thomas from “The Voice.”

In April, the RSO will join a movement across the country to celebrate the birthday of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” features various local performance groups collaborating on beloved compositions such as “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town,” and the chorale favorite, “Chichester Psalms” on April 28.

These are just some of the season’s offerings, which will also include chamber music. Find the entire season’s program at rockfordsymphonyorchestra.com.

RSO’s Success

One of the reasons RSO enjoys continued patronage and strong support is its performance venue, the Coronado Performing Arts Center, says Julie Thomas, RSO executive director.

“Patrons love it,” she says. “It was built to be a concert hall and its acoustics are perfect. Altogether, the Coronado provides an exceptional musical experience no matter where you sit.”

The RSO knows it has competition, when it comes to live music options in Rockford. The city has a lot to offer and much of it is free.

“This is one of the reasons why we strive to grow our audience through innovative classical musical experiences while remaining true to traditional classical programs,” Thomas says.

“It’s challenging,” she adds. “We want people to experience this time-honored music on a broader level. This is why we combine the performances with extensive background information on our website as well as pre-concert lectures. These give concert- goers tools to more fully appreciate and savor the RSO.”

Additionally, RSO is breaking down language barriers that may prevent people from attending.

“We translated our information into Spanish and some of our volunteers speak Spanish,” she says. “They’re available to answer questions and assist with ticket sales and at concessions. This lowers barriers to residents getting the most out of their symphony experience.”

The RSO has a strong subscriber base of more than 1,000 people, but is always looking to expand it. Thomas sees a trend toward newer patrons appreciating the flexibility of purchasing single or package tickets. Since the Coronado has 2,300 seats, there’s plenty of room for all.

Another indicator of RSO’s success is the growing age span of its audience.

“We’re seeing more family participation as well as students,” says Thomas. “RSO has a robust student symphony orchestra that has proven popular with families, friends and the community.”

Ticket sales account for about half of RSO’s annual income. The nonprofit organization also relies on the support of corporations and individuals.

“All of our musicians are professionals and are paid for their performances,” she says. “We depend on both patrons and supporters to enable us to produce exceptional programs that continue to expand our audiences.”

RSO remains one of the selling points for enticing newcomers to the greater Rockford community.

“Having outstanding cultural venues such as RSO brings new residents into the area,” Thomas says. “Rockford has so much to offer, and RSO is one of the draws.”

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