Allerton Music Fest offers high culture, rustic setting

Driving down Allerton Road in Monticello, the first thing one may expect to see are cornfields. The last? A first-class concert hall — especially one that holds a festival featuring jazz and classical music, piano and musical theater all inside of a red, rustic 19th century Dutch hay barn. But it all can be found in Allerton Park and Retreat Center, one of the “seven wonders of Illinois,” according to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, the venue that hosts the Allerton Barn Music Festival each year.

“You just think that you are out in the middle of nowhere, and you just drive up to this barn, and it looks like a pretty basic place,” said Oliver Nelson Jr., one of the performers in last year’s festival. “But once you get inside, it is a whole different world. Acoustically, I thought that the sound was pretty great for a barn.”

The timing, as well as some of the musical acts, will be different at this year’s Allerton Barn Music Festival. The festival, which starts Thursday and goes until Sunday, will feature new performances as well as keep some of the same talent from previous years. All performances will take place in the evening, except one additional Sunday afternoon show. Tickets can be purchased through the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, with a discounted student price of $20 per show.

“For the first time, we are having it later in September,” said Dr. Jeffrey Magee, director of the festival and director of the School of Music. “It is usually a Labor Day event. It is taking place in the third week of September, when we expect to have cooler weather.”

The festival will kick off Thursday at 6:30 p.m. with a pre-concert interview between Magee and composer Gunther Schuller, whose piece will be played later that evening. Magee will interview Schuller on stage for the pre-concert talk, which will begin at 6:30 p.m.. Schuller has won the Pulitzer Prize along with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and at age 87, is “full of energy,” Magee said. For one of his pieces at the festival, Schuller will be conducting headliner Jupiter Plus. The group, which also played at the festival last year, consists of Nelson Lee and Megan Freivogel on violin, Liz Freivogel on viola and Daniel McDonough on cello. Bernhard Scully will also accompany the group on the horn.

On Friday, the University concert jazz band under the direction of Joel Spencer will perform alongside jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski, a former sideman for the late “King of Swing” Benny Goodman. The performance is titled “Swing, Swing, Swing” and will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert. This day will be particularly special for a few of the participants in the concert. In addition to Peplowski’s history with Goodman, Spencer rehearsed with Goodman as a student when Goodman performed at the University about 35 years ago.

Magee said it’s great that the festival will be featuring a diverse group of performers, including students, faculty and guests. The festival provides the platform for students to get to work with professional musicians.

The second half of the weekend also includes a slight variation from past years. Saturday’s performance is a solo piano act by William Heiles, a member of the piano faculty at the University since 1968.

“To hear a solo piano recital in that space is going to be very special,” Magee said. Heiles’ performance is titled, “Bach and Schumann: Teacher and Poet.”

Sunday features one of the more unique changes from years past: a musical theater performance called “Of Thee I Sing.” George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (who contributed to many Marx Brothers movies) wrote the play, while the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, wrote the music. The political satire won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, making it the first musical to ever win one. There is both an afternoon showing at 2 p.m. and a night showing at 7 p.m.

“That show is a true collaboration between the School of Music and the Theater Department,” Magee said. “The stage director, J.W. Morrissette is in Theater, and our orchestra conductor, Aaron Kaplan, is a School of Music graduate, and people from both sides of Oregon Street are involved in the performance.”

Magee said the Allerton Barn Festival is a great opportunity because it’s one of the few events that allows University faculty, staff and students to bond with professional musicians as well as the Champaign-Urbana community as a whole.

Declan can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous version of the photo caption said that musicians performed an euctic program at the Allerton Music Barn Festival. The caption should have stated that musicians performed an eclectic program.