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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 12:10 am

Illinois Symphony’s Russian blockbuster

Alexander Toradze


Maestro Alastair Willis will conclude his tenure as musical director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The infectiously energetic conductor has asked to be released from his five-year contract early to accommodate an increasingly demanding international performance schedule. But that doesn’t mean the season will be half-hearted. Far from it. “It will be the best we ever had and I will go out with a bang,” promised the ever-ebullient Willis in an interview ahead of this Saturday’s opening concert at Sangamon Auditorium.

Willis describes this weekend’s concert as “a Russian blockbuster” and a surefire crowd-pleaser, which will climax with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a piece with emotional resonance for him personally. “As an emotional teen I first heard this piece and it just drove me crazy. It’s one of the most amazing symphonies, real heart-on-sleeve stuff,” he says. “Whatever we’re struggling with, we can connect on some level with Tchaikovsky’s music.”

The first half of the evening’s Russo-centric program will feature Mikhail Glinka’s “Overture from Ruslan and Ludmilla.” Willis describes Glinka as the father of Russian music, who encouraged Russian composers to take an explicitly nationalistic perspective. “Without his influence, none of the composers who followed would have really been the same.” He describes this particular overture as highly innovative for its time, including a whole tone descending scale in the climax, which would not come into vogue until a half-century later. “It’s just so powerful and so cool, a bravura piece of music,” says Willis. “If you don’t know it by name, you’ll probably recognize it when you hear it.”

Willis describes the opening concert’s guest soloist, Alexander Toradze, as “one of the greatest, most critically acclaimed pianists in the world.” Toradze will be performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Willis points out that his recordings of this particular concerto are considered the best there is. “To have someone of his stature – he’s played with all the greatest conductors, all the greatest orchestras as well – sharing his talents with us and bringing this piece alive on opening night…” he pauses, savoring the anticipation. “I can’t wait.”

Maestro Alastair Willis

Full schedule for ISO‘s 2015-2016 season

Oct. 3: Glinka’s “Russian and Ludmilla Overture;” Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony

Nov. 4. at Sangamon Auditorium, University of Illinois Springfield

Nov. 21: Holiday Pops in the Heartland, featuring the Illinois State University Chorale, Sangamon Auditorium, UIS

Dec. 18: Telemann’s “Suite in D Major;” Handel’s “Concerto Grosso in B-flat;” Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto in G Minor;” Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 in A Major “Fire” First Presbyterian Church

Jan. 22: Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik;” Kernis’ “Musica Celestis;” Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings” First Presbyterian Church

Feb. 19: Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture;” Barber’s “Concerto for Violin;” Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 Sangamon Auditorium

April 9: Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro Overture;” Mozart’s “Arias;” Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 featuring Grammy-nominated Metropolitan Opera soprano Juile Bouliane Sangamon Auditorium, UIS

April 30: Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia;” Zhao Lin “Duo for Sheng & Cello” featuring members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” arranged by Ravel Sangamon Auditorium, UIS

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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