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Thursday, May 9, 2013 09:04 am

Symphony season goes out on a high note

Maestro Alastair Willis has great expectations for coming years

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Guest conductor Stefan Sanderling, left, and ISO musical director Alastair Willis banter onstage during Saturday’s “Concert Comments.”
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

This past weekend marked the end of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s 20th anniversary season, which was the first under the musical direction of Maestro Alastair Willis. Willis did not conduct Saturday’s program, however, handing the baton to renowned conductor Stefan Sanderling of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. The deliberately paced concert began with the atmospheric, nearly abstract “Quiet City” by Copland, featuring a virtual conversation between trumpet and English horn. Things soon caught fire with the appearance of guest pianist Martina Filjak, whose passionate and delicate playing galvanized the orchestra’s performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony closed out the program, benefiting greatly from Sanderling’s careful calibration of tension throughout the early movements, eventually paying off with a thrilling, bombastic climax.

While Willis did not conduct, he was on hand before the performance for an entertaining and informal onstage talk with Sanderling, with whom he shared a clear rapport. The discussion ranged over numerous topics, including the importance of orchestras working with guest conductors, primarily variety. Not only does a fresh face help an orchestra keep its energy up but also, as Sanderling put it, “if I do not personally like a certain piece, I still believe it should be performed.” Saturday’s selections were all suggested by Maestro Willis.

Willis maintains a high level of enthusiasm as his first year with the ISO draws to a close. “It continues to be really exciting,” he said in a recent interview. “The learning curve is still very much on the upward for me, but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far in so short a time.” The maestro went on to praise the orchestra’s musicality, “their preparation, their execution, their energy, their focus. Things have really stepped forward, from what I understand – although I don’t have anything to compare it to. The energy of this orchestra is such a privilege to work with.”

ISO Executive Director Trevor Orthmann is also pleased, reporting that audience attendance this season has increased. “Things are definitely on the upswing,” he said, although it should be noted that ticket sales only pay for approximately 35 percent of the orchestra’s expenses. Fundraising is still in active mode as the fiscal year draws to a close.

ISO principal oboist Orion Rapp
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE


Willis intends to capitalize on all the positive energy, beginning with some bold musical choices in the recently announced 2013-2014 season. The next season will include works by Chinese composers Chen Yi and Tan Dun, with percussionist Joseph Gramley and pipa player (as well as Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year) Wu Man scheduled as featured soloists. Both are members of Yo-yo Ma’s acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble, with which Willis maintains a unique connection. “Not many conductors work with them and they seem to ask me whenever there’s a need. I’ve toured America and I’ve toured Japan and Europe with them.” These solo performances are part of a long-term strategy which Willis hopes will finally bring Silk Road, including its celebrated leader, to central Illinois by the 2016-2017 season. “We would not just do concerts, we would connect with the universities for lectures and classes,” he explains. “So far the enthusiasm from the board and from the universities is very big.

“But let’s just say in five years we don’t get Yo-yo Ma or the full Silk Road Ensemble to come here,” he continues. “Will we have lost anything by having brought in these great soloists?” He concludes by appropriately evoking Chinese philosopher Laozi (sixth century BCE): “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” He smiles. “And those first steps are happening next season.”

Scott Faingold reports on the arts for Illinois Times. Contact him at scottfaingold@gmail.com. Read his blog, Faingold at Large.

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