Smile Politely

Hey, that’s not That’s No Moon!

I’ve known Stephen Larson, local musical genius, for something like 25 years. A more cheerful and talented gent cannot be found. This is the guy who wrote an entire musical parody for the high school drama club initiation dinner. (I believe it was based on My Fair Lady.) He played his keyboard and sang all of the parts in the Monical’s basement while we all sat, jaws to the floor, and drank root beer. Larson later created a musical review of original and covered songs for his parting gift to the senior thespians. He recorded it, mixed it, and distributed it entirely on his own. He was sixteen years old.

This guy does not mess around. So, when I heard about the Urbana Pops Orchestra concert, “That’s No Moon,” I was stoked. There was no way this would be a half-baked project. Mr. Larson would not allow it. I talked to Larson and his colleague, Daniel Southerland, about the upcoming concert to find out what Urbana has in store this weekend.


Smile Politely: How did you get involved in this project?

Daniel Southerland: I became involved with the Urbana Pops Orchestra in December 2009. I was heavily inspired by Michael Tilson Thomas’ idea for the New World Symphony and also my own teacher’s dedication to the marriage of professional music and education. With a lot of help from my associate conductor, Stephen Larson, we started to put together proposals and scouting for potential administrators to lead the logistical side of running an orchestra.

Stephen Larson: “That’s No Moon” is our first of two concerts this summer. Daniel is an enormous Star Wars fan, so a space concert featuring the familiar music … by John Williams, has been inevitable. We purchased the Stars Wars music with a grant from Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, and the music from Holst’s The Planets is in public domain.

We will also premiere the winning work, Cold Moonlight, by Daniel Stelzer, from our first composition contest. [Stelzer is sixteen years old and will be a senior this fall at University Laboratory High School. He’s written for small ensembles, but this is his first full orchestra composition.]

SP: Stephen, you said this is the first of two concerts this summer. Tell me about the second.

Larson: The next one is our “Made in the USA” concert, which has American music. I am conducting the composition contest winner [on Saturday] and two works at the next concert (North by Northwest and selections from The Music Man with the cast of the Urbana Park District production).

SP: What’s your music background in C-U?

Southerland: I have been a musician since I was a child and through college. I am a saxophone player by trade, which is, ironically, an instrument you rarely find in an orchestra. Before conducting the Urbana Pops Orchestra, I served as the conductor for several Urbana Park District summer youth productions. 

SP: What was that experience like? Music can be so influential to kids…

Southerland: The Summer Youth program really reinforced my decision to follow education as an important part of my professional career. I was a music education major in college, but I was at a bit of a crossroads when deciding if I wanted to pursue a life as a professional working musician or as an educator. Seeing the effect of music on students who actually wanted to be there, and who were willing to work, really changed my professional life. It became clear to me that I was meant to be an educator, [and] that I could also ‘have my cake and eat it, too’ when it came to being a professional musician.

SP: I’d say how lucky you are, but I’ve found that professional musicians rarely get where they are from anything but hard work. Speaking of hard work … how did you meet Stephen?

Southerland: I met Stephen my freshman year at Millikin. I was rushing for Phi Mu Alpha, which was a men’s music fraternity … he was already a member. We became fast friends and have been since.

SP: Are you two co-conductors or what? What does it mean to be an ‘associate conductor’?

Larson: [Daniel] is the principal conductor, so he does the lion’s share of the conducting. I do the ‘extra’ works that we program and help with programming in the months leading up to our season. I help as much as I can. In fact, I researched the music purchases and rentals for this summer.

SP: And you know what’s what. I can say that much from experience! Do you handle administrative things like scheduling and promotion?

Larson: Actually, we have board members who do that. [Daniel and I] both contribute to the music choices. But we have similar taste in music, so it’s usually ‘Oh, I thought of that, too!’ It’s a lot of nights listening to music, looking at repertoire lists, and emailing back and forth.

SP: Heaven! Okay, Daniel, I have to ask: Why did you pick saxophone?

Southerland: To be honest, because my parents wouldn’t let me play flute. They thought it was a ‘girly’ instrument, so I just went with the woodwind instrument that was the shiniest. I was able to get back at them a little bit in college by taking a full year of flute lessons. Also, Bill Clinton was President when I was in 5th grade, so I figured … if the President played [sax], it wouldn’t be so bad.

SP: Good thing he didn’t play piccolo, or your parents would have had a fit! Why go to this event? What are you offering your audience? What are they going to experience at “That’s No Moon”?

Larson: [shows photos]

SP: Is that the newly renovated auditorium at Urbana High School?

Larson: Yes, and it’s everything we could hope it could be!

Southerland: We seem to find ourselves in a culture that thinks that classical music is irrelevant or dead. It’s my mission, every concert, to prove that thought incorrect. ‘Classical’ music (as it is familiarly labeled) is still very relevant today, but is presented in different ways: through film, TV, etc. This concert will display some very familiar tunes from films we all know well, but it will also feature music that reminds us where our musical roots are.

You get to see us train the next generation of musicians by practicing what we preach. It’s rare to see an orchestra deliver on [its] promise of education and excellence. We do just that.


To see “That’s No Moon” (the concert, not the band), get to Urbana High School Auditorium at 7 p.m. on June 8. You can get tickets online, at the door, or at International Galleries in Lincoln Square Village. Tickets are $10; $8 for seniors; $5 for students; $25 for families (2 adults and up to 3 children aged 12 and under).

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