DECATUR — Some Millikin University events you could set your watch by, like Vespers or graduation. The beginning of the school year possesses one of these events as well.
With another Labor Day, there invariably comes another free Labor Day Pops concert on Lake Decatur. And leading the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra is Dr. Michael Luxner, with a typically optimistic outlook on the annual event that he created 16 years ago.
“We are always looking for that perfect mix of light classics that appeal to an older audience along with something to appeal to kids and grandkids,” he said. “This year, for instance, we’re ending with a set of music from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.’ ”
The popular annual pops concert, held in the Nelson Park amphitheatre, will once again run the gamut of music styles in an attempt to please the most varied possible audience. Selections range from a patriotic armed forces salute to Gershwin jazz and theater music from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” Luxner was particularly excited for the orchestra to perform a “Salute to TV,” featuring some of the famous TV theme songs of yesteryear.
“TV shows don’t seem to have particularly recognizable themes these days,” he said. “These are some of the classics that older fans will no doubt recognize, like the themes from ‘Bonanza’ or ‘The Flintstones’ or ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ or ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ ”
The program also includes a few opening musical selections that Luxner considers somewhat more challenging for the players than the typical pops fare, including Strauss’ “Fledermaus Overture” and Bizet’s “L’Alesienne Suite No. 1.”
“The light classical music that opens it is a bit more ambitious than typical,” he said. “They’re just a few pieces with the kind of stylistic nuance that you usually don’t attempt on the first day and first concert of the year.”
In recent years, the pops concert has consistently enjoyed good weather and a regular fan base. Listeners often pull up on boats to take in the concert from the surface of the lake, and Luxner has consistently been pleased with the event’s efforts to introduce basic classical music or the idea of the symphony to locals who are not classical music buffs. Even after all this time, he still sees new faces.
“I still do hear from people who have just wandered up and don’t know what it is, and they think it’s great,” he said. “We’ve got a great community lineup at this point, doing three free concerts a year now including this one, the lullaby concert and the family concert.”
Ultimately, not much changes about Labor Day Pops each year, but that’s the idea. The symphony’s director sees the value in having a dependable event each year that can serve its own special audience of fans.
“If they enjoy it one year, I want them to be able to count on enjoying it the next year,” Luxner said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for having something you can count on in the schedule.”
And as usual, the pops concert is only the first step in the symphony’s school-year season. Luxner described the season in its entirety as “very fresh, without a single 19th century warhorse to be found,” and is particularly looking forward to the season opener starring folk and classical music star Mark O’Connor, a recognized master of American violin and fiddle music.
“My headline for it is ‘crossover superstar highlights symphony season,’ ” he said. “He’s created this all new, distinctly American idiom with his music and I absolutely can’t wait for it.”