Southern Illinois Music Festival 2011: Three-dozen Concerts in Three Weeks

Southern Illinois Music Festival 2011: Three-dozen Concerts in Three Weeks
Chris Wissmann

The seventh-annual Southern Illinois Music Festival will bring more than three-dozen performances to communities all over Southern Illinois, from Sesser to Cairo and Murphysboro to Marion, but most of it in or near SIU and Carbondale.

The festival runs from June 5 to June 25, and while this year's theme is Bach to the Classics, the fest will offer music by myriad composers in genres ranging from ballet and opera to classical and jazz, with performers ranging from SIU professors and visiting artists from all over the world to music-camp students.

Indeed, the Southern Illinois Music Festival has an international reach, according to organizer and Southern Illinois Symphony Orchestra maestro Ed Benyas.

"Many of our orchestral performers originated and established their early careers in other countries," Benyas says. Festival musicians hail from Hungary, Argentina, Russia, Romania, South Korea. American musicians travel from as far away as Florida and Texas.

Festival highlights will include Adolphe Adam's ballet Giselle (Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11 at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center) and Pietro Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Thursday, June 23 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Herrin and Saturday, June 25 at Saint Andrew's Catholic Church in Murphysboro). Of course, performances of Bach's music take place throughout the fest, including all six of his Brandenburg Concerti. The Festival Orchestra will perform the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto Tuesday, June 14 at Carbondale Community High School (with Michael Barta, Amber Williamson, Martha Stiehl, and Edward Benyas), and the First Brandenburg Concerto Saturday, June 18 at Carbondale Community High School (which will also feature SIU alum Boja Kragulj on a Mozart concerto and Emily Fons on three arias).

Other composers featured during the festival include Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.

Johann Sebastian Bach became the focus of the festival because of financial reasons, according to Benyas-- Bach is so established in the classical canon that his work requires fewer rehearsals, and often doesn't need such large ensembles.

"Last year we programmed music for large orchestral forces, like Bernstein's West Side Story symphonic dances and Gershwin's American in Paris, and it took us until December before we were able to pay all the personnel costs," Benyas says. "So we have scaled back a bit as far as personnel needs, but certainly there will be no drop in quality of our performances from past summers. And Bach is really universally loved; I know our audiences will enjoy the chance to hear all six Brandenburg Concerti in June."

The festival also includes an extensive chamber-music series of small-ensemble recitals, performances by the New Arts Jazztet, and more than a dozen Klassics for Kids and Jive with Jazz events for children.

The festival coincides with a summer music camp for high-school students, a forty-year tradition at Southern Illinois University, where members of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra will be in residence. Youth are a big part of the festival, on the stages as well as in the audience.

"My wife [Kara] and I started Klassics for Kids when our first daughter was two because we wanted to expose her and her peers to more live classical music," Benyas says. "We've found that in doing so we also exposed the young parents of these children, who themselves may not have had much exposure to these art forms. Of course, we are trying to establish an audience of the future as well. The ballet gives us the opportunity to utilize dozens of young local dancers in a fully staged production with professional dancers and live orchestra. Name another community of our size that offers that option. The music we present at the Southern Illinois Music Festival is designed to inspire, foster a broad range of emotions and to provoke deeper thoughts and feelings than what young people might typically download, so it should enhance the overall spectrum of listening experience."

The festival has for the first time received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant called Arts Education in American Communities that will help support Klassics for Kids, as well as some of the chamber-music performances in places like Sesser and Cairo.

The Southern Illinois Music Festival tries to belie classical music and its audience's reputation for stuffiness by encouraging informal and casual attire. It's a goal the festival accomplishes through many routes.

"First off, we don't wear tuxedos, usually just white polo shirts, and for our children's programs, we wear [Southern Illinois Music Festival] T-shirts," Benyas says. "Then we always speak to our audiences during the concerts, no matter what the venue, except the opera and ballet. The musicians will explain bits about the music they are performing during our chamber concerts, and at Klassics for Kids and Jive with Jazz, and I do so on the orchestral programs. The opera has English translations projected above the stage, and the ballet will have a pre-concert lecture. Beyond that, the artists become part of our community for the three weeks of the Festival. They patronize our local businesses and stay with local host families. In fact, many host families request specific musicians to stay with them each year due to the relationships they develop, a fact of which I am quite proud. On top of that, [the festival] softball games on our Mondays off are a great festival tradition."

And one more way in which the festival tries to get closer to audiences-- most events are free or only carry nominal charges. Tickets with admission fees sell via the Marion Cultural and Civic Center box office at (618) 997-4030 or visit <>.

For the complete schedule, log on to <> or call the SIU School of Music at (618) 53-MUSIC.

who: Maestro Ed Benyas

what: Southern Illinois Music Festival

where: all over Southern Illinois

when: June 5 through June 25