Edward M. Benyas has stood on many raised podiums throughout his career, directing orchestras featuring some of the nation’s most talented musicians. Benyas, a professor of oboe and conducting in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Music, will reach another milestone when he directs the 2022 Illinois All-State Orchestra in Peoria later this month.
The program is part of the annual Illinois Music Educators Conference. Rehearsals are Jan. 27-28, with the performance at 1 p.m. Jan. 29 in Carver Arena. The six all-state and honors ensembles of high school sophomores through seniors will consist of about 1,200 students total in orchestra, band and chorus. Each ensemble will give its own 30-minute concert, while the other ensembles, their parents and the public listen. All of the musicians will then combine to conclude the performance with a vocal-instrumental rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which Benyas said will be “really quite moving.”
“Being invited to conduct the Illinois All-State High School Orchestra is quite a big honor for me, as the invited conductors come from nationally recognized universities or professional orchestras,” Benyas said.
This year, other conductors in band and choral performances will come from schools including the University of Illinois, UCLA and Drake. Benyas said he is also not aware of anyone from SIU Carbondale being invited to conduct any Illinois all-state ensemble in at least the last 25 years.
Statewide appeal/local talent
Students across Illinois auditioned in the fall to be included among nine district band, orchestra and choir competitions in November. Based on those auditions, the top students from each district are invited to perform in the all-state band, orchestra or choir. The students selected will not know until after the Jan. 26 auditions in Peoria whether they are in the honors or all-state ensemble, Benyas said. Rehearsals totaling about 14 hours over the next 2 1/2 days will take place before the Saturday afternoon concert.
Students “typically audition on musical excerpts from the pieces being programmed, and the auditions are quite competitive and nerve wracking for the students,” Benyas said.
The 30-minute full all-state orchestra program will cover great opera highlights of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel Prelude,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “Triumphal March from Aida,” and Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.”
There are 18 local all-state high school singers and instrumentalists who will be among those performing. Those students are from Benton Consolidated High School, Carbondale Community High School, Carterville High School, Centralia High School, Murphysboro High School, Nashville Community High School and Pinckneyville Community High School.
Preparation is crucial
Benyas has been doing what any coach does prior to a big game — developing a detailed game plan. That means not only intense study for the high school students who hope to be part of the 200-member all-state orchestra, but for Benyas, as well.
“When conducting any type of ensemble, score study is the most important preparation. So I will spend a lot of time studying this great music,” he said.
Beyond score study, Benyas noted additional preparations down to the smallest detail include:
- Providing all instrumental parts as separate pdf files to coordinators in advance, along with bringing taped copies of everything, including string parts that are marked with bowings used in concerts at SIU.
“Having all the string parts marked with consistent bowings (when to use up bow or down bow) is a standard, but time-consuming practice that allows the string sections to bow uniformly, resulting in a more cohesive and satisfying performance,” Benyas said.
- Taping each part for each piece together to keep students from struggling with loose music sheets.
A “stickler about not having loose sheets flying around,” Benyas noted the extensive work his staff assisted him with preparing parts for 48 violins, 24 violas, 22 cellos, 12 basses, 20 woodwinds, 30 brass and percussion, times the three pieces.
- Making sure that students bring auxiliary instruments like piccolo, English horn and bass clarinet and also review the two-day rehearsal schedule.
Benyas noted the discipline required for students to reach this performance level. His two daughters qualified for the ensembles for three years while they attended Carbondale Community High School.
“To reach that level of accomplishment, the students invariably take private applied lessons on their instrument or voice for several years, for example with SIU Music faculty,” Benyas explained. “Simply playing in your public school ensemble without studying privately will generally be insufficient preparation to reach that level.”