DECATUR – On a year-to-year basis, the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra's “Oratorio” concert can look quite a bit different.

Some years, the annual collaboration with the university's vocal department can take the form of a pure oratorio featuring a single choir. Other times, two or three choirs are featured in different pieces.

This year, the MDSO will call upon the entire Millikin University Union of Choirs, creating a spectacle that orchestra director Michael Luxner said would rival even the annual Vespers concert in its scope.

“This is the big one,” he said of the Saturday night performance at Kirkland Fine Arts Center. “It's always one of our most popular shows of the year. With the augmented forces of both the orchestra and the choirs, the audience loves it.”

The program will be broken into two parts. First, Luxner and the MDSO will perform Stravinsky's demanding and intense ballet “Petrushka.” They will then join forces with the Union of Choirs for a selection of four sacred pieces by Giueseppe Verdi: “Ave Maria,” “Stabat Mater,” “Laudi alla Vergine Maria” and “Te Deum.” The two “Marian” pieces will be performed exlusively by the Millikin University Choir conducted by Guy Forbes.

“The choirs are being featured in the entire second half,” Luxner said. “In actuality, it's more choir than orchestra for those portions.”

That breakdown was fine with Luxner, as he has focused the bulk of his attention on “Petrushka.” Unusually demanding even for the MDSO, the ballet originally tells the story of a Russian puppet that comes to life. Luxner described it as a “Twilight Zone”-like premise to a ballet that was requiring a special degree of concentration from his performers.

“Everyone's individual pieces are difficult in this ballet,” he said. “It's the kind of piece where everyone on the faculty starts practicing months in advance because that's the only way to learn it. It makes an interesting pairing with the sacred pieces in that they have nothing in common, but there's nothing else like either of them.”

Brad Holmes, the head of the university's vocal department, said the show will be just as stressful a challenge for his singers. The Verdi pieces are not often performed by student vocalists, requiring mastery and experience that is typically beyond the college level.

“Verdi demands a voice that is much bigger than normal,” he said. “It's going to really tax and test them. It's weighty, heft singing that will require them to dig down and find someplace in their voice that is beyond their years. That's a lot to ask of young voices, but it's a great learning experience.”

Luxner, meanwhile, is always one to get excited by the prospect of a piece that will challenge his orchestra. He's also looking forward to being enveloped by the full sound of the Union of Choirs.

“It's going to be a full, glorious sound with hundreds of voices,” he said. “That always feels like a special moment.”


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