Out­reach, risk-tak­ing draw Willis

> Can­di­date to di­rect MSO is ready to ap­ply mu­si­cal pas­sion

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By Jon W. Sparks

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.”

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