Illinois Symphony launches a new season

Search for a new conductor heats up

click to enlarge Illinois Symphony launches a new season
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE CALL
“Bon Voyage! A Musical Journey to Paris,” from April’s Concerts For Kids performance. This season’s kids concert will be sports-themed.

When Maestro Ken Lam announced in May 2022 that he would be leaving after five years as music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra to accept a prestigious job at the Juilliard School in China, the conductor's timing was off. The news arrived too close to the start of the 2022-2023 concert season for the ISO to launch a search for a replacement in time. Instead, the orchestra invited a series of guest conductors (along with their Associate Conductor Jacobsen Woollen, who also conducts the Youth Symphony Orchestra) to take turns hoisting the baton. Now, with the 2023-2024 season ready to begin this weekend, the search for Lam's replacement is heating up. The final four candidates are scheduled to conduct two concerts each between now and April.

click to enlarge Illinois Symphony launches a new season
Yaniv Dinur

The candidates are Taichi Fukumura, assistant conductor for the Fort Worth Symphony, who will conduct this weekend's concert; Yaniv Dinur who just finished a stint as the resident conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony; Naomi Woo, who was recently named assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director of the New Bedford Symphony in Massachusetts; and Tania Miller, who is music director emeritus of the Victoria Symphony in Canada, and tours as a guest conductor of orchestras around the world. Dinur and Miller have both studied with ISO Music Director Emeritus Ken Kiesler. (Jacobsen Woolen also studied with Kiesler.)

Things have been improving gradually but steadily for the ISO since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. "Last season, as in many arts organizations everywhere, it was slow in attendance," said Trevor Orthmann, ISO's executive director since 2009. "People were worried that this was how the new normal was going to be, with attendance at 30% or 40%." Luckily, audiences for the orchestra's concerts increased over the course of the 2022-2023 season, topped off by a hugely profitable concert in March of this year. "Star Wars and Beyond: The Best of John Williams" sold out in Bloomington and "revenue-wise it was our highest-grossing concert that has been done in the Springfield community," according to Orthmann. "The beauty of the Star Wars concert last year was that it was just music, without any accompanying visuals – and it was the best-selling concert," said ISO Director of Marketing and Communication Beth Wakefield. "It was great just to see the music come to life, and how it brings those movies to life."

This season will include a special "Tunes from the Toons" concert, a similarly crowd-pleasing program highlighting classical music as used in cartoons – from Elmer Fudd's immortal mangling of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" ("Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit") to music found in Mulan, Toy Story and other more recent animated hits.

Another positive sign is the continuing success of the Illinois Symphony Youth Orchestras program, which became a part of the ISO at the start of the pandemic in 2020. "Our Starter Strings program has gone from six classes last season to probably 18 this year, which is a big leap," Orthmann explained. "We are having to rethink: How do people find out about us and learn about us and how can we make connections to many different people in the community that we serve? The Youth Symphony is one way to do that."

click to enlarge Illinois Symphony launches a new season
PHOTO BY CHRISTA HOLKA
Naomi Woo

The Concerts for Kids series is another way the ISO is reaching out to youthful musicians and music enthusiasts in the area. This season, all third-graders and fourth-graders from throughout District 186 will be able to attend the sports-themed "Take Me Out To the Symphony" concert, scheduled for Feb. 13 and 14. "We are offering the concert for free and about 3,000 kids from Springfield public schools will be experiencing the Illinois Symphony. Which is the first time that's happened in my time here," Orthmann added with a smile.

Apart from outreach, the focus for this season will be on the search for a new music director, with each concert acting as an audition for that night's conductor. But there is more than just musical prowess to consider when it comes to finding just the right maestro for the job. "We hopefully have only chosen candidates who can easily handle the music part of it. The biggest thing is that the candidates must connect with the musicians in the orchestra," said Orthmann. "They also should be able to interact with the communities and be able to gear programs to our current audiences as well as ones we are developing."

The 11-person search committee tasked with making the decision to hire the eventual new music director is made up of three musicians from the symphony, along with various board members and lifetime members of the ISO, in addition to both Ken Lam (who retains a role as artistic adviser) and Orthmann each serving in an ex officio capacity. "I pretty much do all the steering of the committee and all of the work, but I don't really have much of a say in anything," said Orthmann.

click to enlarge Illinois Symphony launches a new season
Tania Miller

The search process is arduous, starting with a list of candidates invited by the committee. This time, 80 candidates were invited based on recommendations from ISO musicians and Orthmann, as well as self-recommendations from potential candidates themselves and even input from knowledgeable audience members. "Typically, in the last two searches, we sent out between 70 and 80 invitations, ending up with 30 to 35 applying. We had 55 applicants," said Orthmann, who has participated in six previous music director searches on behalf of the ISO, including two for the Youth Orchestras director. These applicants then submit resumes and video examples of themselves in action conducting, which are reviewed by the search committee as well as all the principle players in the orchestra.

From there, the field is narrowed to between 12 and 15 candidates who are interviewed. ("It's nicer with Zoom compared to phone interviews," said Orthmann. "You get a better sense of the person.") With all the information from the last two rounds, the four finalists were chosen, along with two alternates in case any drop out of the running. After the concert season, all information will be tabulated and compiled, along with responses from audience members. With any luck, the candidate that everyone feels will do the best job will be announced in June of 2024, to begin the following October, when the 2024-2025 season begins.

"It can be pretty brutal for the candidates," said Orthmann. "They are put through a pretty rigorous process." For instance, on the day of this Friday's concert, Maestro Fukumura will start off having breakfast with the ISO staff. Next, he will lead the symphony in rehearsal, followed by an appearance at a dinner with the Illinois Symphony Guild of Springfield, then a public pre-concert conversation, all before finally conducting the concert, which is followed by a reception where he will meet audience members. "That's a pretty intense single day," said Orthmann. "And you learn a lot about how they handle pressure."

Opening concert

"Fire and Fanfare," the opening concert of the ISO's 2023-2024 season, will take place at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 20 at the UIS Performing Arts Center in Springfield and at 7:30 p.m., Saturday Oct. 21 at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts in Normal.

Scott Faingold is Director of Student Media at University of Illinois Springfield. He is also the founding editor of Activator magazine and co-hosts "Old School Bleep," a music-centered podcast.

Scott Faingold

Scott Faingold is a journalist, educator and musician. He has been director of student media at University of Illinois Springfield, founding editor of Activator magazine, a staff reporter for Illinois Times and co-host of Old School Bleep, a music-centered podcast.

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