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Thursday, May 31, 2012 02:55 am

Meet the maestro

The Illinois Symphony starts fresh with a new musical director


Alastair Willis, who was born in Massachusetts and raised in Russia and England, lives in Seattle. He starts June 24 as conductor of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

“The power of music can unite a community,” says Alastair Willis, brand new music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. “That’s what we all need to be striving towards. It’s really about ‘how can we do this together?’”

Willis’s appointment is the culmination of an arduous search which began in July 2010 with the announced departure of longtime ISO conductor Karen Lynne Deal. As a result, attendees of the orchestra’s 2011/2012 season were treated to an eclectic and sometimes dizzying mix of musical approaches as the five finalists (which included Donato Cabrera, Rei Hotoda, Kenneth Raskin and Andrew Sewell in addition to Willis) each took the opportunity to strut their symphonic stuff. Despite the fact that all the potential musical directors were eminently qualified, the decision to choose Willis for the position was not a difficult one.

“Typically one candidate rises clearly to the top,” explains ISO executive director Trevor Orthmann, “and that did happen in this search – one candidate was definitely higher-ranked than the others. We found that [Willis] was definitely the one that people felt was right for the orchestra – the audience could feel it from the energy coming off the stage, the musicians could feel a different energy working with him, it was just one of those things.”

While Orthmann’s role as executive director is primarily administrative, as music director Willis will take responsibility for the artistic side of things, including leading orchestra rehearsals, making artistic personnel decisions and working with the committee of musicians through auditions to select members of the orchestra when positions are open. The musical director is also responsible for choosing the repertoire for the season.

Clarinetist Jack Marquardt and the rest of the ISO clarinet section perform in the “Titanic

The search itself was painstakingly thorough. Each candidate was subjected to two interviews with the search committee, and worked with either the orchestra or chamber orchestra twice. “That can really reveal a lot more than just performing under somebody for one week,” says Orthmann. “With less exposure, it sometimes can be hard to gauge what the real fit is.” The search committee also took careful note of comments received within the community, to help gauge each candidate’s human relations skills, including how they behaved when meeting with members of the community as well as gauging the quality of interaction with the orchestra in rehearsal.

All of this input combined to provide a comprehensive portrait of what each candidate would bring to the job. “If there were a process like this for the nation’s presidency, it would be a whole other story,” Orthmann laughs.

“I want to say how impressed I was with the orchestra when I worked with them,” says Willis over the phone from his Seattle home. “I’m so excited to be given the opportunity to work with these great musicians for the next several years and to grow with them and to progress with them. I just can’t wait to get started, I’m very excited. That said, it’s about really engaging, finding collaborations with the communities, and really connecting. Because that is the role of music. It’s not enough now just to put on a good concert and expect people to come, you have to reach out to them. Also, we can’t be frightening away our seasoned subscribers by going and doing too many brand new things straightaway. One must be very careful and progressive with this.”

Willis, who is under contract to spend 16 weeks per year working with the ISO when his position begins on June 24, will continue to live in Seattle during the remainder of the year, while keeping his options open for additional musical engagements.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s violin section

Orthmann, 42, is no stranger to the nuts and bolts elements of running a symphony orchestra. Before becoming executive director here in 2009, the Carnegie-Mellon graduate and former violin teacher had accrued extensive experience, first in finance and marketing for the Baltimore Opera in 1995-1996, then as general manager (1996-2001) and eventual executive director (2001-2009) of the Haddonfield Symphony. That orchestra changed its name to “Symphony in C” during Orthmann’s tenure and he also oversaw the once-itinerant ensemble’s permanent 2006 move to its current home in Camden, N. J.

“It’s certainly something that the ISO hadn’t had in a very long time,” says Orthmann referring to his years of experience. “You definitely know what you need to do to get the job done, and you know how the organization should work, and you strive to make it go in that direction. I think things are just run more efficiently now. Basically, I think I’m pretty steady and patient, and I’m a person who listens a lot – which is very important in this business. You listen to people who are your supporters and the people who are not your supporters – and your job is to make everyone into your supporter. The symphony should be a uniting force and something that the communities both in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal are proud of, instead of a divisive organization.”

Orthmann’s introduction into a life of classical music did not have the most standard of beginnings. “Of all things, I actually saw a Cajun fiddler, Doug Kershaw, playing, and he was a guy who would break seven or eight bows in a performance, he would have a milk jug full of bows, and I was just like, ‘wow, man, that’s like cool as can be!’ I said to my parents, ‘I want to play the violin,’ so I started playing at five.”

Also perhaps falling outside of the stereotype of high-brow musician is the executive director’s extracurricular passion for high-endurance athletics, which had its beginnings during his stint working for the Baltimore Opera. “I was sort of running and biking a little bit, and saw that there was a biathlon being held and got hooked on doing multisport events.” Orthmann has since had the opportunity to race as an amateur in many championships around the world, expanding to include triathlon upon learning to swim, only five or six years ago. “I’m more of a sinker than a swimmer,” he admits with a chuckle. “I definitely prefer being on land over water.”

Trevor Orthmann, executive director of the ISO since 2009, brought to the job a background of considerable experience.

All of Orthmann’s myriad experience is brought to bear in his role of executive director of the ISO, not least in terms of the organization’s structure, which calls for a delicate balance of power. There is a governing board of directors, made up of members from both Bloomington-Normal and Springfield, along with two separate community councils, one in each of the two communities. These councils have no governing power, instead concentrating on fundraising events and other marketing efforts, essentially functioning as the symphony’s ears, eyes and legs in the two communities. There are also separate ISO Guilds in each of the two cities, which are basically volunteer organizations in charge of additional fundraising events. For instance, this past season, the Guilds hosted luncheons with all of the candidates, allowing members of the two communities to hear the prospective conductors speak about themselves and answer questions.

One thing that has changed over the years is that most music directors now seek outside opinion on what the orchestra will play, rather than adopting an autocratic approach. “A music director nowadays is listening and getting input that allows them to make the programming choices,” says Orthmann. “In a way the music director is almost like a chef, in having to select the right items on the menu and put that all together to make it a success for the year.”

Of course, no heights of artistic success can be scaled unless the symphony’s finances are in order. Luckily, things appear to be looking up for the ISO on this front. According to Orthmann, approximately 30 percent of the organization’s $1 million to $1.1 million annual budget comes from ticket sales, with the other 70 percent provided by sponsorships, grants, individual contributions and fundraising events. Fundraising events in the two communities typically raise a combined $100,000 each year. New sponsors have been joining this year, accompanied by the return of some sponsors who have been absent in recent seasons. Ticket sales are reportedly up this year over last year, with approximately 60-65 percent of the seats filled. “We still have a ways to go,” Orthmann admits, “and we continue to work on that, but we’re seeing trends that are pointing positive instead of the downward spiral from the recession in 2008. There were really two, two and a half seasons there which were very challenging times for orchestras, not just ours, but across the nation. There will still probably be some hard choices to be made, but orchestras have to change and adapt to what the market, and what the communities that we’re in, demand.”

The symphony is hoping to exceed its goal of an additional $60,000 in its end-of-the-fiscal-year appeal, set for the end of June, including two large-scale fundraising meet-and-greet events for members of the public to interact with Willis. “I think $60,000 is a reasonable goal,” Orthmann says.

Percussionist Ryan Kahlbaugh plays the bass drum during the “Titanic

Orthmann also sees many opportunities for growth in the coming season, including the possible addition of a staff member dedicated to education and community engagement for the orchestra. He would also like to see the ISO raise its profile and show the rest of the country and the world what it’s capable of musically. “Back in 1990, this orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall,” he says. “Well, there’s now a program that Carnegie Hall is running [Spring For Music] so maybe we can aspire to take the orchestra back to Carnegie Hall. We’re the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, we should represent the State of Illinois.”

Speaking of representation, the musicians of the symphony itself voted to unionize back in 2009, nearly simultaneous with the start of Orthmann’s tenure as executive director.  “We’ve negotiated the agreement and they should be signing it soon,” affirms Orthmann. “I think it really addresses concerns of both management and musicians. This will basically help codify the operations of the orchestra, putting a lot of things that we’ve done – and probably most orchestras have done for ages and ages – into writing.”

As new music director, Willis brings a huge amount of natural charisma as well as a towering international resume to central Illinois. A world-renowned and Grammy-nominated conductor, Willis was born in Massachusetts and raised in Russia and England. In just the last several years he has conducted orchestras in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Rio de Janeiro, St. Louis, Houston, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and even China. He was associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony from 2000 to 2003 and has collaborated extensively with superstar cellist-composer Yo-Yo Ma.

“It’s not just about performing great music and performing it well,” insists Willis. “We are wanting to reach out, wanting to find those people who haven’t ever heard the symphony, who maybe have a preconception that, you know, symphonies are ‘stuffy’ and to connect with these people. Because music isn’t just for a certain part of society, music is for everyone. Our challenge is to bring that concept in the most exciting, engaging way to central Illinois. And I hope we’re up for it!

“We’re all one,” he concludes. “We’re all there for the music.”

Scott Faingold will be completing his master’s thesis in the Communication Department at UIS this summer. He is a novelist and musician as well as a regular contributor to IT, and can be reached via scottfaingold@gmail.com.


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