Monday, March 31, 2014

Class Acts brings the Holocaust to life for middle school students

My Heart in a Suitcase
Nothing beats a well-written, well-acted play about the Holocaust to remind me of how much we can learn and understand about the human condition through theatre.  This week, Sangamon Auditorium's Class Acts series presented ArtsPower Touring Theatre’s My Heart in a Suitcase, a touching drama for middle school students about the Kindertransport.  The Kindertransport was a rescue mission that took nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and placed them in British foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms right after the devastation of Kristallnacht and before the outbreak of the second World War.  Parents of the children chose to have their children travel on the Kindertransport to save them from the turbulent social and political climate, and many of them never saw their children again.

Over the years, I have been involved with three presentations of My Heart in a Suitcase and each of the last two times, I was fortunate to have connected with Dr. Heini Halberstam, retired faculty member from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who traveled on the Kindertransport at the age of 12.  I reached out to Dr. Halberstam without expectation at the time of the first presentation; I was looking to make a deeper connection to the project and identified him online as a local “Kind” who had benefited from the 1930s mission effort overseas.

Dr. Halberstam traveled from Urbana to Bloomington in 2007 (where I was working at the time) for the first local presentation of My Heart in a Suitcase.  He was very touched by the play and told me afterwards that it reminded him of some of the details and emotions of his experience that he hadn't thought about in a long time.  For both a public and school performance, he participated in a post-show discussion.  He did the same at Sangamon Auditorium in 2009, and this time also sat down with me to video an interview in which he answered some questions that had been submitted by attending students in advance of the show.

This week, I learned that Dr. Halberstam had passed away earlier this year.  As I read his distinguished obituary, I was humbled by the thought of having had the opportunity to introduce him to students and teachers through ArtsPower’s play.  But both times I worked with Dr. Halberstam were before I was a mother, and now that I am, reading the story of the early part of his life resonates even more deeply for me. It was his mother, already a widow, who made the tough decision to send her only child to England on the Kindertransport.  She died of typhus in a Nazi work camp three years later.

Dr. Halberstam made significant contributions to the field of mathematics and prime numbers.  For those contributions, the world can thank both his birth mother, who had the wisdom to secure his safety, and his English foster mother, who recognized his intellectual abilities and made his education possible, despite having no obligation or expectation to do so at a time when orphaned children populated much of Europe.  I love the thought of the contributions of both of these mothers.  Rest in peace, Dr. Halberstam, and eternal blessings to you and your mothers.

Monday, March 24, 2014

SFJAZZ Collective concert to honor Springfield-born drummer Barrett Deems

The SFJAZZ Collective is an all-star award-winning jazz ensemble comprising eight of the finest performers/composers at work in jazz today. Launched in 2004 by SFJAZZ, the Collective has become one of the most exciting and acclaimed groups on the jazz scene.

The Collective is celebrating its 10th Anniversary by highlighting their greatest arrangements and original compositions. This "best of" performance includes material from many of the Collective's past and present members along with the tribute composers including Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Stevie Wonder, and Chick Corea.

SFJAZZ Collective
Sangamon Auditorium’s presentation of SFJAZZ will be dedicated to the memory of Barrett Deems. A cake reception will be held in the lobby following the concert in celebration of Deems’ 100th birthday and his 70-year career.

Barrett Deems was born in Springfield, Illinois on March 1, 1914. Best known for his role as drummer for jazz icon Louis Armstrong, Deems also worked with other household names in jazz like Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Beardstown native Red Norvo, Muggsy Spanier, Woody Herman, Joe Venuti, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden. He also collaborated with the Dukes of Dixieland and Joe Kelly’s Gaslight Band. Deems recorded music with jazz pianist Art Hodes and toured with several Louis Armstrong tribute bands. His drumming inspirations included Gene Krupa, Dave Tough and Baby Dodds.

Up until his death at the age of 84, Deems was performing regularly with his 18-piece Big Band, which included trumpeters Brad Goode and Mike McLaughlin, trombonist Audrey Morrison, and reedmen Barry Winograd and Richie Corpolongo.

Dubbed “the world’s fastest drummer,” Deems was known to be hyperactive. In fact, Armstrong once said, “Barrett, you’re the only guy in the world that makes coffee nervous”.

Other anecdotes of Deems are telling of his bold and unpredictable character. Stephen Voce stated that when meeting newly elected Chicago mayor Jane Byrne at the inaugural city jazz festival in 1979, Deems reportedly said to her, "You know, I don't care what they say about you. You’re not a bad looking broad. And you've got great legs, too." The mayor smiled in response and said, "Thank you very much."

When trombonist Jack Teagarden died from an alcohol addiction, Deems said he “never cared for the stuff.” Deems spent the majority of his life sober.

And when he first started playing drums, he did not learn to read music – and never got to it during his career. Deems said, “Who cares? Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa couldn't read too well either, but they could play. Guess what? That's what counts."

In a recent article published  in the Illinois Times, James Krohe, Jr. wrote it was widely believed that white musicians were ahead on the beat by a few milliseconds – referring to it as the “honky offset.” Maybe that’s why some of the most revered African American jazz bands brought in white drummers like Deems in all-black bands, said Krohe. Deems joins Quad-Cities native Louie Bellson here, who worked for Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Deem’s music can be heard on Louis Armstrong’s Satch Plays Fats: The Music of Fats Waller, Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. Deems also performed “Now You Has Jazz” with Armstrong and Bing Crosby in the 1956 movie, High Society.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

There is life after Jersey Boys: March Madness!

It hardly seems possible that our week with Jersey Boys is over almost as quickly as it began.  But the rest of March has a hefty schedule as well.  We've got some visually stunning, musically evocative performances coming up the remainder of this month.  Check out the next few below.

TAO: Phoenix Rising
TAO: Phoenix Rising brings Japanese taiko drumming to our stage this Thursday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. We're always glad to welcome this art form back to our hall.  The energy and artistry fill the room with excitement.

Cyrille Aimee
The vocal jazz stylings of Cyrille Aimee comes to the Studio Theatre Kitchen Sink series on Friday, March 21 at 8 p.m.  Aimee sometimes uses a loop pedal to create a unique arrangement for herself based on her own voice.

H.M.S. Pinafore - New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players
New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players will pay us a visit on Sunday, March 23 at 7 p.m. for their production of H.M.S. Pinafore.  It has been several years since any Gilbert and Sullivan works were presented at Sangamon Auditorium, so we are delighted to welcome this company to help fill that niche.

Stay tuned for more posts about upcoming events in March...

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Boys are in Town! (the Jersey Boys, that is!)

Sangamon Auditorium staff members pose by one of the Jersey Boys semis.
It's going to be a great week at Sangamon Auditorium, UIS! We're so pleased to welcome the national tour of Broadway's Jersey Boys to campus.  It has been more than seven years since we presented a full week of a Broadway tour and most of our staff have never experienced a tour of this sort at our venue.  The shows begin with opening night on Tuesday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Jersey Boys is a Broadway musical that tells the story behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It uses the chart-topping music of that group as it tells how four blue-collar kids from Jersey rose to fame and how they grew and changed through those early (and later) years.  It's a great story.  It's great music.  And it's brilliantly theatrical, musical storytelling.

Do you have your tickets yet?  Jersey Boys will be presented at Sangamon Auditorium seven times between March 4 and March 8.  For details and to purchase tickets, visit our website.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jersey Boys, Jersey Boys, Jersey Boys!

Less than one week to go before the national tour of Jersey Boys pulls into our loading dock!  We have been making preparations and looking forward to this engagement for over a year now.  Jersey Boys has been a Broadway favorite since its debut and its win of the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical, and we've had repeated requests for it since its very first appearance.

Jersey Boys is a Broadway musical that tells the story behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It uses the chart-topping music of that group as it tells how four blue-collar kids from Jersey rose to fame and how they grew and changed through those early (and later) years.  It's a great story.  It's great music.  And it's brilliantly theatrical, musical storytelling.

Do you have your tickets yet?  Jersey Boys will be presented at Sangamon Auditorium seven times between March 4 and March 8.  For details and to purchase tickets, visit our website.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Behind the Scenes - What does it take to create a new collaborative project?

What inspires you?  That’s the question Sangamon Auditorium and Fifth House Ensemble posed to six faculty members at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS).  Their stories and observations are being integrated with multimedia elements and modern chamber music provided by Fifth House Ensemble to create a new performance event, which will premier in Sangamon Auditorium’s Studio Theatre on Saturday, February 15, at 8 PM.

The concept for this project arose out of the mythological stories of the ancient Greek muses, a group of goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences and were called upon when people needed inspiration.  Sangamon Auditorium staff identified six UIS faculty members whose fields of study or research were connected to the areas traditionally associated with the ancient muses.  The participants include Michael Burlingame (history), Ethan Lewis (English), John Martin (astronomy), Tiffani Saunders (sociology), Yona Stamatis (music), and Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson (theatre).

The faculty participants were each asked to consider what personally inspired them to pursue their fields of study and to think more generally about what inspiration means in their fields. Reflecting on this process, Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson said, “When I first heard about this project with the 5th House, I was intrigued and somewhat frightened, to be honest. As an actor and director, I'm fine working with words and characters provided by a playwright, but to create something on my own was daunting. Which, I suppose, is one reason why I decided to do it. I'm always telling my students to ‘climb the tree, go out on a limb, and start sawing...’ so I figured I'd better take my own advice! If we don't do things that scare us just a little bit, then we'll never really grow and learn.”

After collecting information from all the faculty participants, Fifth House Ensemble brought graphic designer and storyteller Sarah Becan into the project to write a narrative and create images that connect the individual stories together.  Anna Cooksey from Fifth House Ensemble stated, “The scale of this collaboration - pulling in ideas and materials to guide the show from so many different sources - has been one of the many exciting things about the upcoming concert at Sangamon Auditorium. The ability to connect with experts from such varied disciplines has brought great energy and diversity of thought to the planning process.”

For this performance, Fifth House Ensemble will be utilizing an ensemble comprised of piano, flute, oboe, violin, viola, cello, and bass.  The musicians will perform pieces from composers including Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla, as well as the Midwest premier of a new work by Charles Zoll that was the Rapido! Take Three!! National First Prize Winning Composition.

This project was built on the success of a previous collaboration between Sangamon Auditorium and Fifth House Ensemble.  In 2012, the two entities worked together to develop a project titled “Listen to the River.”  The performance integrated live music with stories, photographic images, and commentary about the Illinois River. The woodwind quintet from Fifth House Ensemble performed water-themed selections interwoven with presentations from noted regional professionals , faculty and students from the UIS Biology and Environmental Studies Departments.

One of the presenters, UIS emeritus faculty member Keith Miller, said, “It was inspiring working with the Fifth House Ensemble for the ‘Listen to the River’ project. The players are professional musicians with immense talent, but they also were skilled collaborators, and graciously brought us into their artistic process. All in all, it was delightful to be involved with this event.”

Tickets for the performance start at $39 and are available by calling the Sangamon Auditorium Ticket Office at 217.206.6160 or 800.207.6069, or by visiting the Sangamon Auditorium website at

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A World-Premiere Event About Inspiration

Sangamon Auditorium is pleased to once again be working with the dynamic chamber group Fifth House Ensemble on a world-premiere event.  In 2012, the project was "Listen to the River" and focused on the UIS departments of biology and environmental studies and the work being done at the Emiquon Field Station on the Illinois River.  The ensemble's musical selections about water were brought to visual life by vivid projections of the photography of UIS environmental studies graduate student Chris Young and in between selections, faculty and students shared reports and stories about the work being done at Emiquon.  It was a truly unique event.

This year, the event is "Invoking the Muse: What Inspires You?" Fifth House Ensemble has been collaborating directly with six UIS faculty members who will explore the nature of inspiration in fields ranging from astronomy to fine arts.  The scholars will share their own stories of inspiration and thoughts on how inspiration manifests itself in their individual fields.  Intermixed with the presentations will be musical works by Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, and others, brought to life by piano, flute, oboe, and four strings.

Fifth House Ensemble
Not only will the piece be performed as part of the Kitchen Sink Series in the UIS Studio Theatre on Saturday, February 15 at 8 p.m., but Fifth House Ensemble will be performing a version of "Invoking the Muse" several times in the Chicago area as part of their more "at-home" concert series.  We are excited that this piece, with an idea conceived by Auditorium Director Bob Vaughn, will have a life outside of the one-time UIS performance and it will bring additional exposure to the UIS faculty members involved.

Following the performance on February 15, the audience will be invited to participate in a post-show discussion with the musicians and scholars involved in the collaboration.  We anticipate a lively discussion about the creative process with additional musings about inspiration will ensue.  We hope you will join us.

For more information about the faculty collaborators on this project, please visit our website.