Alastair Willis is a charmer. With a delightful British accent, quick wit and incisive approach to music, this freelance conductor is in demand by orchestras around the world including Seattle, the city he calls home, Wichita, Kan., Dresden, Germany, and Doha, Qatar.
The international travel has been exciting, but now this new father is looking to become more grounded.
“As I get older, I get wiser,” Willis, 45, says. “My life’s aims now are to invest in a community and make a difference longer-term. To be on a journey and grow together with a group of musicians and a community — this is what I’m after.”
Willis will step up on the Boise Philharmonic’s podium this weekend. He is the fourth of seven candidates vying for the Boise Phil’s music director position, replacing Robert Franz after his eight years with the orchestra.
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Willis spent the week in Boise meeting the community and rehearsing with the orchestra — with a quick trip to conduct the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia.
“They’re a great orchestra and we’ve gotten off to a really good start,” he says of the Boise Phil. “It’s very exciting.”
Willis was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Russia and the United Kingdom, where his Australian father reported for The Washington Post and BBC World Radio.
Music was a big part of family life. Willis took his first piano lessons in Moscow. When the family settled in England five years later, he discovered the trumpet and a love of choir.
“Music has been poured into me from the start,” Willis says. “I wasn’t sure about it at first, but once I got into it, I was overwhelmed by it.”
At University of Bristol in Bristol, England, Willis conducted the student orchestra and choir.
“I realized I would be able to affect the music better from the front of the room,” Willis says.
Inspired by his older sister Sarah, a French horn player who became the first female brass player for the Berlin Philharmonic, he began to pursue music seriously, setting his sights on a position on the podium.
He also had an experience that most conductors don’t.
In between university and graduate school, Willis did a stint in London’s West End production of “Fame,” the stage production based on the 1980s TV show, which was hugely popular in Britain. His character played the trumpet, sang and danced. He spent 14 months in the show before heading the Rice University in Houston for his master’s degree.
“‘Fame’ was a sidestep,” Willis says, but it did fund his living expenses through graduate school.
Willis has been an assistant in Cincinnati, an associate in Seattle and the music director for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, Willis earned a Grammy nomination with the Nashville Symphony and opera.
Each candidate created a program based around an assigned soloist and concerto. Willis drew internationally renowned Basque pianist Joachin Achúcarro, who will play Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with one of the most recognizable openings of any piece in Western music.
Willis paired it with Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.
“I’m thrilled,” Willis says. “It’s a dream program for me.”
Willis likes to find connections between the pieces — and there are many ways these pieces connect, he says. For example, the first three measures of Debussy’s piece are almost the same as the opening for the third movement of Shostakovich’s symphony.
But more important than the similar themes are the contrasts, he says.
“You’ve got two pieces that are uplifting and majestic, but the Shostakovich is not really a happy piece,” Willis says. “It’s the other side of art. I find all the highs and lows exhilarating. You might not leave the theater feeling that everything is great, but you will have experienced a breadth of human expression. I feel that kind of balance is what it’s about for me. I love the variety.”
Boise Philharmonic: Alastair Willis and Joaquin Achúcarro
8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 27, Brandt Center, Northwest Nazarene University, 707 Fern St., Nampa; 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. Preconcert talks at 7 p.m. both nights. Tickets: $22.50-$70.50 at BoisePhil.org and 344-7849.