The Boise Philharmonic’s concert Saturday night at the Morrison Center left the packed audience breathless. Under Alastair Willis’ baton, the orchestra played a seamlessly elegant and beautiful program that took the audience from the ultimate idealism of Debussy’s “Prelude a L’apres midi d’un Faun” (“Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun”) to the tumultuous exultation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.
Willis is the fourth of seven candidates for the orchestra’s music director position left open when Robert Franz resigned at the end of last season. 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 for a recording with the Nashville Symphony and opera.
Currently living in Seattle, Willis traveled to Boise at the end of last season when the job opening was announced to get a feel for the orchestra. The trip paid off.
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Being Basque, Achúcarro brought many from Boise’s Basque community to the Morrison Center — including Mayor Dave Bieter, who helped introduce the evening. The Basques may have come for Achúcarro, but they stayed for the Shostakovich and were not disappointed.
Tall and charming, Willis engaged the audience wonderfully, eliciting genuine laughter during his comments about the program, which he described as a “dream” of his favorite music.
His presence on the podium was entirely elegant. Under his sure hand the evening was beautifully nuanced and realized.
The Phil’s performance of “Prelude” captured the essence of the piece. It was serene and deeply beautiful from the beginning, as its opening solo by principal flutist Allison Emerick gave way to Peter Stempe’s oboe without variance. The orchestra blended perfectly to create this delicate piece of music that sits on the edge of modernism. The music appeared to almost “glow” on stage.
Next up was the Grieg.
At 80, Achúcarro showed that he still is a master of his art. His performance was well-measured and patient — the kind of patience born from experience and artistry.
Achúcarro attacked the iconic opening of Grieg’s masterwork, one of the most recognizable themes in Western classical music, setting the tone. The first movement was filled with undaunted power that brought cheers from the audience. The second and third movements breathed with rich eloquence.
Willis made a highly attentive partner, creating a moment where the soloist and orchestra intersected with extreme grace.
The orchestra was there at every turn to provide full-bodied support for their soloist, especially the warm-toned cello section led by principal Samuel Smith.
The Shostakovich finale felt particularly prescient and spoke eloquently of the tense political times we live in now. Shostakovich created the symphony under the scrutiny of Stalin and the Soviet government that were looking for any excuse to send him to the Gulag.
But he survived by creating a work that used beautiful melodic phrase to obfuscate the struggle beneath and bring it to a triumphant conclusion.
The epic piece has a lot of moving parts, and Willis handled them expertly. The orchestra missed barely a beat in keeping up with the work, which ranges from heroic lyricism to despair as it moves through several crowd-pleasing melodies.
Concertmaster Geoffrey Trabichoff performed the violin solo with aching passion. The brass section excelled and the percussion ensemble came into its own on the piece, and principal timpanist Bill Shaltis brought it home with the final explosions from his instrument as the piece came to its close.
Willis told the audience that the Shostakovich was not a “happy” piece of music. If not happy, it was entirely satisfying and moving.
As we go through each of these entirely different and individual candidates you begin to see the characteristics and qualities of leadership. For Willis, his lasting impression is one of assuredness, experience and vision. Programming the Shostakovich was a gamble, and it paid off. The audience was left cheering — and again — breathless.