Music Director Candidate

Music Director Candidate Spotlight: Alastair Willis

Alastair_just a personThe search for the HPO’s next Music Director continues with Maestro Alastair Willis as the first candidate this season to take the stage this Saturday for Opening Night: Laplante Plays Beethoven.

Alastair Willis is the first out of six Music Director Candidates to audition this season following Gemma New who made her guest conductor appearance during last year’s Pastoral in May. After spending the summer in Seattle with his family and training for a couple triathlons, Alastair is set to commence his concert season with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra as their Music Director.

In case you’re wondering, Alastair won’t be leaving the Illinois Symphony Orchestra for the HPO. In fact, most Music Directors take on multiple postings with orchestras around the world, making international travel part of the job package. In addition to manning his post with the ISO, Alastair guest conducts for orchestras on multiple continents. Last year, his total international travel time added up to be six full months during which he conducted the Orquesta Sinfonica de Rio de Janeiro, Ensemble Impuls in Germany and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite spending half a year on the road and in the air, Seattle has been the home base for this maestro ever since he was appointed as Seattle Symphony’s assistant conductor in 2002.

Alastair conductingThe IIllinois Symphony Orchestra will see much of Alastair this season, but he’s scheduled to conduct the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra this November along with his visit with the HPO this week.

With his many years under the baton, some of Alastair’s most notable highlights include his Grammy nomination for best classical album in 2009 for his recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortlieges with the Nashville Symphony and Opera for Naxos. He also toured with internationally beloved cellist Yo-Yo Ma during the Silk Road ensemble performances by the Seattle Symphony. Alastair has since conducted the ensemble with residencies in New York, Chicago and North Carolina.

Alastair was born in Acton, Massachusetts and lived with his family in Moscow for five years before settling in Surrey, England where he lived until he was 25. Alastair remained in England to pursue on honors bachelor degree at Bristol University and earned a post-graduate certificate of education degree from Kingston University, where he then taught music at both primary and secondary schools. He later earned his Master’s of Music from Rice University’s School of Music.

Don’t miss Alastair yoru chance to see Alastair this Saturday, September 20 at 7:30pm for Opening Night: Laplante Plays Beethoven. You can hear a Pre-Concert Talk from Alastair, part of the HPO’s Inside the Music series, at 6:30pm in the Great Hall in Hamilton Place, just one hour before the concert.

Listen to Alastair talk about his appointment as Music Director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra:



Raising the Baton for Women

Karina Canellakis

Karina Canellakis

Standing on the illuminated podium at Hamilton Place, with eager eyes watching in anticipation for the evening’s concert, the conductor has complete control over the orchestra. The HPO has brought many amazing guest conductors this season and two of our upcoming concerts feature something more unique in orchestral music. Two brilliant female conductors will hold the baton this season to conduct our talented HPO musicians. Gemma New conducts HPO’s April 26 Pastorale, and Karina Canellakis conducts HPO’s March 1 Cirque de la Symphonie.

Traditionally speaking, orchestral conductors are predominately male. However, women like Gemma New and Karina Cannellakis are breaking through historic barriers with their fine musical skills and impressive performances. Karina holds a Bachelors degree in violin from the Curtis Institute of Music and a Masters degree in orchestral conducting from the esteemed Juilliard School. She won the 2013 Charles Schiff Conducting Award for outstanding achievement in orchestral conducting, as well as the American Conductors Award, Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship and Isidore Komanoff Award.

Gemma New was named by WQXR, New York’s classic music radio station, as “one of the top five women conductors on the rise.” Gemma was raised to believe that women can do whatever they want as long as they have the drive, talent and determination. Gemma started playing the violin when she was five years old. She studied conducting throughout her violin degree and got jobs with youth orchestras and operas as assistant conductor.

Gemma New conducting publicity photo

Gemma New

Gemma loved conducting right away and knew it was her passion. It has always been her number one focus and she completed her Masters in Conducting at Baltimore University. Gemma admits that when she goes to a festival or masterclass it is very noticeable that she is the only female in the studio, but no one singles her out. There is a social issue that is still apparent, but focussing on music and working hard has led others to respect her work. Controversy over women not having the same opportunity as men still exists, but it has been continuously dissolving over the years. “By now people are very accepting,” Gemma says. Gemma enjoys meeting other female conductors and says, “Meeting Karina was great. We understand that there aren’t many of us and that helps us to be supportive to each other.”

Gemma’s advice for aspiring female conductors is to “work hard and study as much as you can. There are great conducting graduate programs and going to rehearsals to learn as much as you can from professional orchestra’s by asking questions is important.” Studying music is Gemma’s motivation and she says, “Going through why these pieces are played so often and why they touch people from all different generations throughout many years of history inspires me.”

Being a conductor involves continuously learning “ways to understanding music to communicate styles and ideas with the audience and musicians on a deeper level.” Gemma loves the program on April 26 stating, “I’m really excited to work with Martin Beaver on the Violin Concerto because I played it when I was in university on the violin. It’s a beautiful piece about the countryside and a staple of history.”

Watch Karina and Gemma in action here: