Taichi Fukumura named new ISO conductor

Following an exciting 2023-2024 season which doubled as a fierce, seven-month contest to hire a new music director/conductor, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra has announced the winner: Maestro Taichi Fukumura. The selection process took an unexpected turn in April, when Naomi Woo withdrew from the competition to become music director of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, narrowing the field considerably.

Former conductor Ken Lam announced his departure for China last year – he is now director of orchestral studies at The Tianjin Juilliard School as well as resident conductor of the Tianjin Juilliard Orchestra. He retains a position as creative adviser for ISO.

Fukumura is no stranger to Illinois, having spent much of his early career in Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in music and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from Northwestern University. He will be leaving his current position as assistant conductor for the Fort Worth Symphony to claim his post as ISO music director. Discussing the orchestra's dual home bases of Springfield and Bloomington-Normal during an interview held over Zoom last week, Fukumura called ISO "a unique orchestra with a very dynamic setup." Having grown up in Boston, he was surprised to encounter a sense of familiarity upon spending time in the Land of Lincoln. "Being in Springfield made me feel at home because of all the architecture and the history," he enthused. "Just the fact that there is so much history is very similar to New England."

Fukumura is looking forward to working with the ISO's musicians. "We have not that many concerts together per year but every event matters to them," he said. "And when the [musical] programs present challenges, that is when they go the extra mile and step up." Speaking of challenges, there are several positions within the orchestra that will need to be filled soon with new musicians, a process Fukumura describes as a "golden opportunity." He hopes to start filling the spots with musicians both local and regional, anticipating the ability to take advantage of both Springfield's and BloNo's proximity to larger cities like Chicago and St. Louis, with their attendant plethora of musical talent.

"The plan is to do everything to make ISO attractive to potential musicians," he said. "Every event should be meaningful to both audiences and musicians, where we mix and juggle repertoire." He plans to combine some familiar pieces which might be new to this orchestra, along with some more contemporary compositions rarely heard before.

"Where do we want the orchestra to be in five, 10 years?" This was one of the primary questions on the committee's collective mind during the selection process, according to Trevor Orthmann, ISO executive director. "We were looking for positive energy and passion," he said. Surveys of the orchestra's musicians were one tool used to help determine who would be the new musical director. "Chemistry with the orchestra, the ability to make our musicians feel comfortable, and skill on the podium" were some of the most important traits on the committee's list – along with the ability to connect with various constituencies in both the Springfield and Bloomington-Normal communities. The search process began last year with 55 applicants, eventually winnowing down to four and finally leaving Fukumura as the last baton standing.

For his part, the newly announced music director is thrilled to get started. "One of the big things that strikes me about this organization is that it is a very exciting one at the cusp of some great artistic growth," he said. "There have been very good, smart [administrative] decisions made in recent years leading up to here." These decisions include the incorporation of the Illinois Symphony Youth Orchestras program, which became a part of the ISO in 2020, including the Starter Strings program, which has shown significant growth recently in attracting beginning musicians interested in learning violin, viola or cello. "No orchestra can do well without the support of the people in the community and the musicians," concluded Maestro Fukumura. All the ingredients seem to be in place for an exciting and successful future for the ISO.

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.