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Karen Lynne Deal
Karen Lynne Deal, in her formal Masterworks concert mode, circa 2005, when the Illinois Symphony Orchestra was still playing in ISU's Braden Auditorium. (Pantagraph file photo)

In its relatively short lifetime (18 years), the Illinois Symphony Orchestra has known but two conductors: Kenneth Kiesler, who commanded the podium from 1993 to 2000, and Karen Lynne Deal, who has wielded the baton over the 11 seasons since.

The symphony will know a third conductor in due course after five finalists contend for the position over the course of the impending 2011-12 season.

Until then, it will be a time of transition, as Deal steps up to the podium for her last stanzas with the ISO.

The Twin City audience will bid adieu at 8 p.m. Friday in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, followed by the Springfield audience Saturday night in the U of I at Springfield's Sangamon Auditorium.

By coincidence, that last concert is also Deal's birthday, her 54th --meaning the ISO has occupied a fifth of her lifetime.

In her time here, the self-professed "people person" has been a hit with her patrons, who've responded in kind to her outgoing personality -- both inside the concert hall and out.

Deal counts among her proudest achievements the ISO's expansion in terms of performances, community outreach and that crucial up-close-and-personal interface with her public.

She also is proud of the ISO's endeavors to educate younger audiences with performances and activities tailored to their perspectives ... creating a series of history-themed performances ... performing a repertoire that "says something" ... and appearing in such high-profile venues as Highland Park's Ravinia Festival and Chicago's Millennium Park.

In a recent interview with GO!, Deal reflected on the many-layered experiences of her 11 years in front of both an orchestra and its public.

GO: What was it that brought you here from a larger market like Nashville (where Deal was associate conductor of the Nashville Symphony from 1992 to 2000)?

KD: I never had the desire to be music director of a major orchestra; I did have a desire to be a builder of an orchestra the size of this one -- to help it serve the smaller communities where people have fewer opportunities than in the really big cities. I've always been concerned about the everyday person.

GO: What were the challenges you saw in the ISO upon arriving?

KD: In Nashville, I conducted more than 100 concerts a year of different shapes and sizes, including opera and through my role as music director for the Nashville Ballet. But I was still the associate, No. 2, where the decisions are secondary to someone else's.

Here, the music director position was much different: I would be deciding everything for the orchestra in terms of the repertoire and the whole season. I had very careful goals and achievements I wanted the orchestra to maintain.

GO: What are your most rewarding accomplishments in that area?

KD: When I came here, one of my mandates was to get very involved in the community and try to get more young people and minorities involved, and I think I've done a really good job of that, and am very, very pleased -- and proud.

We've also had some really exceptional concerts -- many, many exceptional concerts. In fact, I can't think of a bad concert, though some were better than others. They've all been full of passion and energy and they've said something.

I'm also extremely proud of the fact that I've been repeatedly asked to put together special community concerts with an historical perspective, and that's taken us all the way from the state Capitol in Springfield to the Ravinia Festival (in Chicago), twice.

GO: As a woman on the podium, you are a minority in what is still a male-dominated field. How does your role compare now to what it was when you began?

KD: When I was growing up, conductors were all men who had white hair, and who were in their 70s and 80s -- and there weren't any women at all. Later, a handful of women, including myself, became pioneers in this area.

At the time, there were probably no more than 10 nationwide; the generation before that probably had only two or three. Women conductors then were quite abnormal. Now, there are lots and lots of young women in their 20s and 30s who are out there working to be conductors.

GO: What are your feelings on the eve of your final concerts in Central Illinois? They must be bittersweet ...

KD: Definitely bittersweet. And also sad because I've been working these last many months trying to prepare the house (her Springfield home) to be put on the market, and hopefully it will sell quickly.

GO: Do you have any career prospects at the moment?

KD: The conducting world is extremely competitive now, with from 200 to 300 applications received for every job. There are only six or seven positions available each year. At this point, even if I made it as a finalist for one of those positions, the job wouldn't start for three years.

When you're in your 20s and 30s, and a little bit into your 40s, you're moving from place to place. I did it, we all do it. But when you get to be my age, it's like you reach a point where it's not uncommon for the job you have to be the one you hope to keep for a long time.

GO: The last couple years here have been tougher than the first ones, correct?

KD: The orchestra was getting better and better, and then about a year or so ago, the economy tanked. We weren't drawing the steady stream of musicians we had been before, and they were canceling on a much more frequent basis.

Because of that, we've had major inconsistencies of personnel throughout the orchestra, and that makes things very difficult because you never know who you're going to get -- and then who you think you're going to get might change two days before the first rehearsal.

GO: It's more lucrative for musicians to go elsewhere?

KD: If I'm a musician from Chicago, and I can stay in Chicago and make more money playing a wedding than spending five days in Springfield, that's what I'd do; it's what any reasonable person would do.

GO: Has the musical standard of the orchestra suffered as a result?

KD: No, because we've established a really good reputation, and I don't think we've gone below it. But the inconsistency of personnel makes it especially hard to plan a concert season a year in advance, based on who you're supposed to have, since by the time the concert rolls around, you may have only 10 percent of that personnel.

GO: With some of these internal issues of the past few years, do you have any regrets at all over your time here?

KD: No regrets. I've had the privilege of performing an eclectic repertoire with an excellent orchestra.

And I'm very grateful that I've had these 11 years with the musicians, and that I've had the chance to involve myself with the schools and educators in the towns, and the audience members.

The audiences, especially, have just been so generous and kind. And I really do feel so very blessed because of that.

At a glance

What: Illinois Symphony Orchestra season finale, conducted by Karen Lynne Deal

When: 8 p.m. Friday (preceded by "Concert Comments" with Deal at 7:15 p.m.)

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St.

Tickets: $10 to $42

Box office: 866-686-9541

Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sangamon Auditorium, Springfield


Following is the concert bill for "Earthly Encounters," Karen Lynne Deal's final performance as conductor of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and one she says bespeaks her deep love of the sea (note: originally scheduled guest artist, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, has been forced to cancel due to a family emergency):

• Global Warming, by Michael Abels: A folk-inspired piece celebrating music and cultures from around the world.

• And God Created Great Whales, by Alan Hovhaness: A piece originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and featuring the recorded songs of humpback whales.

• La Mer, by Claude Debussy: An impressionistic symphonic portrait of the sea ("la mer").

• Finlandia, by Jean Sibelius: A symphonic poem evoking the struggle of the Finnish people.

• Symphony No. 8, by Antonin Dvorak: A four-movement piece rooted in the Bohemian folk music tradition.


Among the highlights of Karen Lynne Deal's 11-year tenure with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra are:

• Being twice invited to perform at the world-famous Ravinia Festival in suburban Chicago's Highland Park.

• Performing in Chicago's Millennium Park as part of a concert honoring acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who personally invited the ISO (Pine's been a frequent guest performer with the ISO through Deal's reign).

• Staging the annual Fourth of July "Celebrate America!" and Labor Day "Pops in the Park" concerts in Bloomington's Miller Park.

• Creating/conducting "An American Dream," the 2008 concerts honoring the 100th anniversaries of the founding of the Abraham Lincoln Association and the NAACP, and in commemoration of the 1908 Springfield Race Riots,

• Being subsequently invited by the Illinois Bicentennial Commission to create and conduct a celebratory concert, "Let Freedom Ring," featuring more than 1,000 performers and an audience of more than 4,000 in Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center.

• Winning the Illinois Council of Orchestras' 2009 Community Event of the Year Award, 2008 Community Service Award and 2000 Meritorious Service in Outstanding Programming Award; and the Illinois Humanities Council's Studs Terkel Award -- among others.

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