Audience members at the 1,000-seat Lund Auditorium at Dominican University in River Forest should be prepared to see the expression on the singer’s face and the movements of the instrumentalist’s fingers.

That’s because with just 22 rows on the main floor and 14 on the balcony, “you never are far,” according to Leslie Rodriguez, marketing and operations manager for this year’s performing arts series.

A venue that bridges the gap between the stage and the audience is key, says Wyatt Sutherland, the executive director of the concert series and a former professional cellist. Sutherland knows firsthand, from his own experience.

“The feedback from the audience gives you tremendous energy,” he says. “You always want to perform in an intimate space.” At Dominican “you feel the audience is part of the event.”

Plus, there’s no struggle for parking and it’s close, Rodriguez adds. “I just think people don’t really know we’re here. It’s really starting to find its drive and settle in.” They’re trying to attract people from the tri-county area, people in the greater Midwest, and especially young people (even students outside of Dominican get a $10 discount ticket).

Dominican will have a country/bluegrass/pop Traditions Series, a Classical Music Series and a Theatre Arts Lab Series, which showcases Dominican students as well as professional actors.

The idea is to include a selection of high-quality artists who are thinking outside the box in their respective genres, Sutherland says. “These artists want to connect with the audience.”

Bowing to tradition

The Traditions series was one that especially resonated with last year’s audience. All four Traditions performers did very well, either selling out or coming within a few seats of it, so they’re doing it again, Sutherland says.

“Americana and bluegrass really do speak about earthiness, where we came from, the traditions we’re part of. People really gravitate toward that kind of music; it makes them feel good,” he explains.

Emmylou Harris was one of the biggest hits last year, and her success was part of Dominican’s motivation for asking her friend and frequent touring partner, Nanci Griffith, to come this year. They were looking for another outstanding performer in the folk, country and bluegrass genre, and “Nancy fits that to a T,” Sutherland says.

Why Americana? According to Sutherland, they just listened to what last year’s audience wanted. Especially with Griffith. “People requested her, many people,” he says. “It’s the songs, it’s the lyrics, it’s the simplicity” of her music that appeals to people.

Shawn Colvin is second on the menu, and Rodriguez expects that she’ll take special advantage of the intimate venue. Colvin is known for being a “delightful performer, very personable with the audience,” and she often tells stories between playing songs, Rodriguez says.

And her songs and stories are equally intimate, since they express personal feelings about relationships and life. “Her songs are emotional anthems,” Rodriguez notes.

Sutherland is excited to see David Bromberg, a guitar virtuoso who has played with Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton and will be performing with mandolin player Sam Bush. “He’s legend,” says Sutherland.

But Bromberg hadn’t played in the Chicago area for more than 20 years, so Sutherland knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get him. Through a mutual friend, Sutherland got Bromberg’s number and gave him a ring at his home in Delaware.

He introduced himself as a cello player and “I started talking to him as a musician,” Sutherland says. He told Bromberg how he admired his work and how he would love to see him play again, especially with Bush.

“For a musician, absolutely,” was Bromberg’s reply.

“I feel really blessed in that way,” Sutherland comments.

Meanwhile, it’s not unusual to see Kathy Mattea, a Grammy winner, veer from the beaten path both by adding Celtic and bluegrass overtones to her music and by performing in smaller venues, Rodriguez says. That daring nature made her appealing for this concert series.

“She’s returning to her singer/songwriter roots. She’s touring smaller venues like Dominican so she can have a personal connection with the audience,” Rodriguez explains.

Beyond the “three Bs”

With Sutherland’s cello background, he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to showcase a few top-tier modern classical artists. It’s very important to have classical artists that represent the genre well, he says.

But when it comes to classical music at Dominican this year, “it’s not just the traditional ‘three Bs'”Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” Sutherland says. He was looking for classical artists that went beyond the ordinary.

He found something far from ordinary with East Meets West, which will demonstrate how Eastern music influences Western composers. In the 1960s, sitar player Ravi Shankar and violinist Yehudi Menuhin teamed up to intersperse Hindi ragas with Western music such as Ravel and Bartok in their duets.

This performance will be a modern version, with Menuhin’s violin student, Daniel Hope, teaming up with Shankar’s disciple, sitar player Gaurav Mazumdar. It’s the first time these new ragas have been performed in the United States.

And Hope is fantastic, Sutherland says. “Musically, he’s just all over the place and he just nails everything.” He performed at
Dominican with the Beaux Arts Trio last year.

The Boys Choir of Harlem is another unique group, not just because they perform classical music alongside gospel songs, but also because of their mission: to reach out to inner-city kids through music. The kids, ages 12-17, will be performing challenging classical selections from Handel’s Messiah and Vivaldi’s Gloria. It’ll be one of the most energetic concerts, Rodriguez predicts.

But it will be a close tie with the
Eroica Trio, which includes cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, pianist Erika Nickrenz and violinist Adela Pena. The three women have “phenomenal energy” together, Sutherland says. “They’re almost bouncing out of their seats, they give goosebumps.”

The classical series ends with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. “Nadja pushes boundaries on her performance. She doesn’t hold anything back,” Sutherland says. “The two of them are a great duo.”

Also, on March 5 the Annual Trustees Benefit Concert will feature world-renowned opera star Renee Fleming. Tickets are $75 for the concert and $350 the concert, reception and dinner; money raised funds scholarships to the university.

Acting out

The Theatre Arts Series this year “gives you a little taste of different kinds of things,” according to Krista Hansen, director. As usual, this year’s series includes a musical, a contemporary play and a classic play; all cost $15. The plays showcase Dominican actors working with professionals.

Little Shop of Horrors, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is a musical spoof about botanist Seymour, who finds a plant that craves fresh blood. Although it sounds gory, it’s a lighthearted, funny play, Hansen says.

The Foreigner, by Larry Shue, is about a man who is so terribly shy that he pretends he doesn’t speak English. His plan backfires when everyone starts telling him secrets and he overhears a few things he shouldn’t.

A Doll’s House, the classic play by Henrik Ibsen, was a groundbreaking story when it was written in the late 1800s, and is considered the beginning of the realism movement.

Here’s the order of events. Except for the last two plays, performances are at Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest. Season tickets for the Traditions Series are $96/$144 and $80/$128 for the Classical Series. Call the box office at 488-5000.

Traditions Series

Tickets $30/$45

Nanci Griffith, 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10

Shawn Colvin, 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15

Sam Bush/David Bromberg, 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Kathy Mattea, 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 18, 2006

Classical Series

Tickets $25/$40

East Meets West, 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30

The Boys Choir of Harlem, 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3

The Eroica Trio, 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2006

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg/Anne-Marie McDermott, on April 22, 2006

Theatre Arts Series

Tickets $15

Little Shop of Horrors, 8 p.m. Nov. 18-19 and 3 p.m. Nov. 20

The Foreigner, 8 p.m. Feb. 24-25 and 3 p.m. Feb. 26, 2006 at Eloise Martin Recital Hall

A Doll’s House, 8 p.m. April 7-8 and 3 p.m. April 9, 2006 at Eloise Martin Recital Hall

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