Conductor Stephen Alltop is mining the rich veins of popular and classical music early this May. He will lead the 120-voice Apollo Chorus in a program of music by the Beatles, Billy Joel, Elton John and other popular songwriters in Oak Park the afternoon of May 4. On May 10 he conducts the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra in a Disney-inspired program titled “Fantasia Salute: Rite of Spring 101.” During the concert he will reveal what really happened at that ballet’s first performance by the Ballets Russes in Paris a century (plus one year) ago.
Alltop is director of music at Alice Millar Chapel and a member of the conducting faculty and senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Evanston. He is concluding his 17th season with the 120-voice chorus, which was founded in 1872 to lift the spirits of Chicagoans after the city’s devastating 1871 fire.
“Around about my fifth year with Apollo I started expanding the repertoire to include popular music as well as the classics,” said Alltop.
That initiative has proved a great success. Appearances of the chorus have expanded to include performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia Festival, the London Symphony Orchestra’s “Star Wars” tour in 2009, the Peninsula Music Festival and as part of Oprah Winfrey’s Surprise Spectacular in May of 2011.
Most appearances outside the regular season do not call for a full chorus, explained Barbara Guenther, vice president of the Apollo board and a member of the second alto section since the fall of 2004. “Stephen posts sign-up sheets and each member decides whether or not to sing that particular engagement,” she explained. “You can imagine the sign-up sheets for the Oprah appearances.”
Alltop is also preparing the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted for 18 seasons, in a program paying tribute to Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film “Fantasia.” The concert includes Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” dances from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
“This program has a Russian theme,” Alltop said, “and it includes Rimsky-Korsakov, who arranged ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’”
The signature piece of the evening, however, will be the Stravinsky. “His ‘Rite of Spring’ was the advent of musical modernity,” the conductor declared. “The composer was going for something new. The ballet and its music is really a picture of pagan Russia.”
A multi-media salute including historical photos and video segments will accompany the music, and the afternoon also will include an account of what really caused the now-legendary Riot at the Rite in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees so long ago.
Noting that the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago presented a centennial recreation of the 1913 original ballet last season, Alltop said, “I’ve called our performance ‘Rite of Spring 101.’ We will have more than 100 strings for the concert. We’ve invited the York High School String Orchestra to play side-by-side with us. It’s going to be an amazing event.”