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Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 12:00 am

Maestro Willis: ‘A great season’

The Illinois Symphony season opens Saturday with ‘Centennial Celebration’

In its opening concert, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra performs Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused a sensation when it debuted in Paris 100 years ago.


This week marks the start of Alastair Willis’ second season as music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. The energetic maestro is nearly bursting with enthusiasm for all that is in store from both the symphony and chamber orchestras.

This Saturday, Oct. 12, kicks things off with “Centennial Celebration,” referencing both the 100th birthday of composer Benjamin Britten, as well as the one century anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “If I could have been at any world premier of any piece of music, in the history of music, it would be Rite of Spring,” says Willis, expressing a wish to know what really caused the infamous riot which broke out at that first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. “Was it the music? Was it the choreography? Was it the noisemakers planted among the audience? Who knows?”

Musically, Rite remains a challenging piece all these years later. “This orchestra playing that music will just be electric,” he enthuses. “It’s all very tonal. What Stravinsky does is very melodic, but he makes it sound like it’s not. The music tells the tale of a young maiden who sacrifices herself to the God of Spring. The last four minutes, the sacrificial dance, is some of the hardest stuff to play and to conduct. It’s a graveyard for many musicians and not just for the young girl,” he chuckles.

Alastair Willis
Also being performed this week will be Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (also known as A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) as well as Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which Willis describes as “a beautiful, lyrical, haunting, liturgical, mellow, reflective piece – everything that the other two pieces are not!”

Next for the Symphony will be the annual “Holiday Pops in the Heartland” program on Nov. 23. In addition to the return of several local collaborators, the concert will include the Illinois State University chorus, conducted by Karyl Carlson. This will be followed on Feb. 22 by “Shimmering Shakespeare,” featuring the Illinois State University theater department, to help interpret Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The program will also include Debussy’s Afternoon and a piece featuring percussionist Joseph Gramley, the first of several members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble scheduled to appear over the course of the next few seasons. “He is a phenomenal musician,” enthuses the maestro. “He always dances as he plays, and there’s a part which he will sing as well as play. It is an incredible piece, very much visual as well as aural.”

The March 21  program, “Powerful Promise,” includes Spring’s Promise by Estacio, which features call-and-response sections between instruments situated onstage and in the audience, surrounding concertgoers with sound. This program will also include Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, with guest cellist Julie Albers, along with a rendition of  Brahms’ first symphony.  The most ambitious moment in an ambitious season is saved for last, however, with “Lincoln’s Legacy” on May 3. In observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this will mark the first-ever Springfield performance of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which the orchestra will play as a visual display of Civil War and Lincoln photographs, assembled by Photo-Choreographer James Westwater, is projected on a long, panoramic screen above the musicians. “We ran it all by the experts at the museum and the library, to make sure we weren’t stepping on toes,” says Willis. However, some of the photographs used by Westwater were identified as historically erroneous. “We cannot show an unauthentic Lincoln photo in this town,” Willis laughs. Also on the program that evening will be Mahler’s first symphony.

In addition to the symphony concerts at Sangamon Auditorium, the season also includes several exciting concerts by the chamber orchestra at St. Agnes Catholic Church, including notable guest appearances by world-renowned baroque conductor Nicholas McGegan on Feb. 1 and on the April 12 pipa player Wu Man, the 2012 Musical American Musician of the Year. Visit http://www.ilsymphony.org/ for further information on chamber concerts.

“All in all it’s a great, great season,” says Maestro Willis. “I am one happy conductor, and I’m sure we’re going to have one happy audience as well.”

Scott Faingold is an instructor at UIS and vocalist and lyricist for post-punk band Epsom. He writes a blog at www.illinoistimes.com. He can be reached via sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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