Outreach, risk-taking draw Willis
> Candidate to direct MSO is ready to apply musical passion
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Earlier this week, Alastair Willis was in town getting ready for his first date — the one with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra where, if things work out, he could become the next conductor and music director.
You know how it is with first dates — it’s about good impressions, making the right choices and hoping there are more dates to come.
But Willis is not the only suitor. He’s one of three announced candidates being considered to take the position held for a decade by David Loebel. The others — Mei-Ann Chen, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Wilkins, music director of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra — will have their public performances in coming weeks.
It’s no blind date, however. The search for a new wielder of the baton has been going on since early last year when Loebel announced his retirement. A search committee of MSO board members and musicians winnowed a long list to these three most appealing candidates.
Willis, a 38-year-old Seattle resident, has spent the past few seasons guest conducting around the world. He was associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony from 2000 to 2003, and before that was assistant conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras, and music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.
This week he has been rehearsing with the MSO in preparation for Saturday night’s Grand Series concert, a program he hopes will reveal aspects of his vision.
In an interview this week, he elaborated on what the orchestra and audiences might expect from him.
“Memphis is hungry for some new direction,” Willis says. “This excites me and I have some ideas, but I bring with these ideas a sense of flexibility. What I’m all about is having open communication.” He has three priorities. First, he completely supports the MSO’s aggressive efforts to reach out to the community.
“I am passionate about that,” he says. “This is the future for the existence of all classical music, to find that relevance so that if there is another recession, the public will say, we’re not going to let our symphony go because look what they’ve done for us.”
His second priority: “We have to keep our commitment to the core repertoire, the classics.” He acknowledges that’s what the audience wants to hear and what the musicians want to play.
“Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms — they helped establish the orchestra as we know it today; it’s a homage to our origins,” he says. “Yes, music by white, dead Europeans is important and it is relevant, but that’s not our exclusive outlook.”
Willis’ third area of interest is to “try and find some way to put the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on the international map.”
With his commitment to collaboration, he stresses that he wants to hear ideas to this end from other sources. But he says the first idea that he would bring is a focus on new music.
“How about a week of new music, a new music festival. Now, when people hear the words ‘new music’ they think, ‘Oh, no no. we’re not going to go, that’s going to be horrible!’ So how do you entice people to come and hear new music?”
He says orchestras worldwide are offering accessible and exciting new music. “There are many ways to do it, and we are living in a world now that we can’t afford to say, ‘No we don’t do new music.’”
He notes that there are risks, but the benefits could be enormous.
“Are there composers in town that we should be thinking about commissioning a piece from?” he asks. “Is there some connection we can make with Beale Street, with W.C. Handy, with Elvis, with B.B. King and somehow infuse a new piece of work with some local element and still remain orchestral? The spectrum is wide and we could go in any different way.”
A willingness to take risks and move forward is what attracts Willis to the MSO.
“The times have changed when you just go into a school and do one concert and cross that off the list and say, ‘OK, I’ve done my community and education concert for the year,’ ” he says.
He loves that the orchestra is engaged in looking at the big picture, one that reaches out to previously unexplored areas of the community.
“What I have to give is what the symphony could use,” Willis says. “I have a passion for music that I want to communicate any way that I can, and I understand that hasn’t happened in the last few years. What I have to give can only benefit the symphony and the city.”
Alastair Willis, a candidate to lead the Memphis Symphony, likes the orchestra’s emphasis on outreach: “This is the future for the existence of all classical music.”