JOLIET – Opening night for Concerts on the Hill appeared stalled when the soloist for “The Star-Spangled Banner” could not be found. Then, the leader of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra stepped up and filled in with a stirring rendition of the national anthem.
That proved a point made by Rich Liebich, park manager at Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park.
“One great thing about our community is that there are so many local acts,” Liebich said.
Concerts on the Hill will run every Thursday evening starting at 6:30 p.m. through Aug. 27, offering one of the summertime pleasures of life in Joliet. Concerts on the Hill is in its 41st year.
“We come all the time. We love it,” said Becky Wollard of Joliet, accompanied by her neighbor, Evelyn Hicks. “The food, the music, the outdoors, the relaxation. I like everything about it. I don’t even want to go home when it’s over.”
“It doesn’t cost much either,” Hicks said.
There is no charge for admission. Food and drinks are reasonably priced.
“We hold anywhere from 13 to 15 concerts a season,” Liebich said. “It’s not that many venues that offer that many for free.”
It’s made possible in large part by the musicians and other performers who want to be part of Concerts on the Hill, Liebich said.
“We’ll out of the blue get a call from someone asking if they can perform here,” he said.
It’s a nice place to play, said James Watson, a cellist in the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra and a senior at Lincoln-Way Central High School.
“I love that we play here because of the scenery,” Watson said. “The trees right across from the stage are very nice.”
Lawrence Sisk, orchestra leader, has been bringing the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra to Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park since 1991. The orchestra consists of students from junior high school through college.
It’s no wonder Sisk felt comfortable to sing the national anthem on the spot.
“I enjoy it here, and the kids enjoy it here. It’s very beautiful out here,” Sisk said.
The audiences at Concerts on the Hill “are so responsive,” he said. “They’re very appreciative.”
Marie Zahorick of Romeoville described the park as “a great setting with the outdoors, the trees and the river.”
Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park lies along the Des Plaines River. The river bluff that rises across from the stage and behind the slope where the concertgoers sit makes for good acoustics, said Zahorick, whose son, John, was playing French horn for the orchestra.
Asked about the bluff effect, Liebich said, “The acoustics on that stage are excellent. It was designed for that purpose. The people who come here recognize that. Once the sound hits the hillside, it absorbs into the crowd. It doesn’t bounce around.”
The Thursday concert also included the Joliet American Legion Band.
One thing missing was Billie Limacher, who does not get to as many concerts as she used to. Her name was mentioned by many in attendance, including Bill Drilling, the master of ceremonies.
“Billie Limacher is here in spirit, and she is in very good health,” Drilling told the audience. “Think of her and remember her in your prayers. If you get a chance, send her a 94th birthday card.”
Limacher, who led the creation of the park for the nation’s bicentennial celebration, recently celebrated her 94th birthday. The park that bears her name also has an indoor theater for performances throughout the year along with a riverwalk and plaques that mark the history of the Bluff Street business district that was there in a past era.