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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017 12:10 am

An orchestra in transition

Music director candidate to conduct “New World Symphony” on Saturday

Aram Demirjian, one of four candidates for the music director position at ISO, will conduct this weekend’s concert.


With Saturday’s concert, “American Voices,” the Illinois Symphony Orchestra will complete phase one of this season’s vetting of candidates for the position of new music director for the ISO, with the fourth and final candidate, Boston native Aram Demirjian, taking his place in the conductor’s position. The search process began in July of 2015, when Alastair Willis announced he would not be completing his five-year-contract.

According to the symphony orchestra’s executive director, Trevor Orthmann, the search has been painstaking, beginning with a process of screening that involved principal musicians of the orchestra in conjunction with a search committee made up of board members and others. This group eventually narrowed 40 initial candidates down to the four currently vying for the music director job. Orthmann noted that the final four candidates were born on four different continents, although the focus of this weekend’s concert is firmly on North America.

“It’s an almost all-American program,” Orthmann said, pointing out that even though Antonín Dvořák was not an American citizen, he was on U.S. soil in 1893 at the time he composed “The New World Symphony,” to be featured in Saturday’s performance. The program will open with Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” along with “ Summer 1915” by composer Barber Knoxville (“an absolutely beautiful piece,” according to Orthmann) and Gershwin’s “Summertime,” climaxing with the extremely popular “The New World Symphony.” Also onstage for the concert will be guest soprano Julia Bullock, a St. Louis native described by Orthmann as “a very big, rising star in the opera world.”

Demirjian follows his fellow music director candidates Ken Lam, Andrew Sewell and Vladimir Kulenovic in an intensive week, including meeting the community through receptions with key patrons of the symphony and meeting orchestra musicians and board members, all in addition to rehearsing and performing concerts in Bloomington and Springfield.

Roger Hunt, co-chair of the search committee, describes the task at hand as “looking for a very key leader both for the symphony and culturally for the communities [of Springfield and Bloomington] as well.” The committee interviews each candidate extensively but also encourages audiences to participate via questionnaires available online. “The good thing is, our job is tough because each of these candidates is very well experienced and exciting – and they also each bring a unique background and unique experience. It’s not a cookie-cutter issue at all,” Hunt continued. “We honestly listen most sharply to the musicians, because, frankly, that’s where the music happens.”

Dana Hotle, first clarinet for ISO, is enthusiastic about the search process. “The concerts have been exciting for the musicians,” she said. Hotle gives former music director Willis credit for leaving the orchestra in exceptional shape as a unit. “Alastair put the artistic quality of the concerts into our hands and he held us accountable for our playing. He set the bar high and that has made this search process enjoyable because the orchestra is playing at a very high level. It’s allowing us to be responsive and sensitive to the candidates, which makes it fun.”

Hotle describes the search for a music director as both formal and intuitive. “The survey the musicians fill out on each candidate is pretty detailed and contains a lot of technical  questions about things like musical ability,” she said. “When you make music, though, it’s like when you meet a new friend and there’s that spark. You meet perfectly nice people every day, but then there’s that one person who you have a connection with. The same thing happens between orchestras and conductors. The candidates we have would all do a great job, so we’re in good hands. Now the question is, what is the icing on the cake? Who is going to bring the most excitement?”

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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