Published on: October 22, 2015
Peoria’s history is replete with famous performers – both natives and visitors. The age old phrase “will it play in Peoria?” even comes from the late Vaudeville-early Broadway era, when producers would try shows out here first before sending them to New York. Performers like John Phillip Sousa performed here dozens of times. Richard Whiting, composer of The Good Ship Lollipop was born here. The list of famous popular and classical musicians is extensive, historic, and something of which Peoria should be proud. The list includes famous opera singerssuch as Emma Abbott, who was born in 1850 and died a mere six years before the PSO was formed. She appeared in major opera houses in France, Italy, and England before founding her own company in New York and becoming known as a successful impresario nicknamed “The People’s Prima Donna.”Some one hundred years later, the Grammy Award-winning tenor, Jerry Hadley, was born and raised here, attending Bradley University before performing in the major opera houses of the world. And of course, one cannot forget Peoria celebrity-natives like Richard Pryor, Dan Fogelberg, and Bruce Johnston,as well as our storied visiting artists such as Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, and, yes – believe it or not, Enrico Caruso. The list goes on and on.
When Flo and Sid Banwart generously offered to underwrite a program with a major artist, I considered it a great opportunity to add to Peoria’s list of history-making performers. It was a long process and the staff and I were exhaustive in our pursuit of just the right performer. Should it be an established artist? A rising star? A Classical star? Broadway? Jazz? – Why not all of the above? And that is exactly what happened when Audra McDonald made her Peoria debut with the PSO.
Audra McDonald is currently the hottest star on Broadway. She is also a classically trained soprano comfortable on the opera stage. She’s a Jazz singer who is also an actress featured in theater, television, and film. AND, her star is still rising! She won her first Tony Award just a year out of Juilliard and has since won a record-breaking five more. She’s also won two Grammys, an Emmy, and most recently performed at the White House for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Having an artist like Audra come to one’s city brings a kind of cultural benediction to the place. More than a mere performer, she engages you personally and brings a sense of compassion to the concert hall, turning it into a kind of town meeting about life and art. She was generous with her music and her humanity – meeting for an hour with area theater students to talk to them about her journey. And then it was time for the concert! I was so pleased that so many in the audience wrote to express their excitement that evening – “It was a night to remember,” “I will never forget this evening as long as I live,” “I’ve never been to a symphony concert before and this was a great way to start.” It was a proud moment for the PSO and for Peoria: the experience of a lifetime.
She entered stage right. The Civic Center Theater brightened as the pent-up anticipation of a record-breaking crowd turned into wide, toothy smiles. Audra was here – in Peoria! She, smiling back, connected with every joyful soul in the room – such was the warmth, charisma, and beauty she radiated. As she began to sing, all of the reasons for her fame and admiration became a personal revelation for each lucky listener.
They came from all walks of life – from down the street, across the river, throughout the region. Some came from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles to hear her. For many, much of it was new: Audra, the PSO, Peoria! For everyone, it was the experience of a lifetime!
In a dazzling display of artistic generosity and noble humanity, Audra McDonald mesmerized our audience that evening; changing our lives a little with the transformational insight great music can give us about society and ourselves.
Thank you, Audra! Enjoy the memories Peoria! It was cultural history in the making. And, YOU were there as part of ourPSO family!
George Stelluto, Music Director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra