Meet the seven candidates vying to lead the Boise Philharmonic

These seven conductors will lead the Boise Philharmonic over the 2016-’17 season and one of them will become the orchestra’s next music director. They are (top, left to right) Aram Demirjian, Michelle Merrill, Keitaro Harada, Alastair Willis, Andrés Franco, Eric Garcia and Brett Mitchell.
These seven conductors will lead the Boise Philharmonic over the 2016-’17 season and one of them will become the orchestra’s next music director. They are (top, left to right) Aram Demirjian, Michelle Merrill, Keitaro Harada, Alastair Willis, Andrés Franco, Eric Garcia and Brett Mitchell.

The Boise Philharmonic is on a mission this coming 2016-’17 season. It is bringing in seven world-class candidates to vie for the Music Director position left by Robert Franz in April. And after the final chords sound, it will have a new artistic leader.

The lineup is Knoxville (Tenn.) Symphony Music Director Aram Demirjian, Detroit Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Michelle Merrill, Cincinnati Symphony Associate Conductor Keitaro Harada, freelance conductor Alastair Willis, Signature Symphony Music Director and Pittsburgh Symphony Assistant Conductor Andrés Franco, Oklahoma City College Director of Orchestral Studies Eric Garcia and Cleveland Orchestra Associate Conductor Brett Mitchell.

Read a story about the search process and the Boise Philharmonic’s 2016-’17 season here.

Read more about the seven music director candidates below:

Aram Demirjian

Current: Knoxville Symphony music director

Concert: Sept. 30-Oct. 1: Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist pianist Andrew von Oeyen, Schachter’s “Five – Six – Seven – Eight,” Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” Suite.

From: Boston

“My interest in conducting flows from my love of orchestral music,” says Aram Demirjian, 30, who started cello at 8.

“By 14, I was so fascinated by the phenomenon of the orchestra — all the moving parts, the energy going into different musical lines — all in service of a greater musical harmony. It quickly became clear I wasn’t going to be satisfied just playing my part.”

In June, Demirjian completed his tenure as an associate at the Kansas City Symphony, where he helped found the popular “Screenland at the Symphony” series in which the orchestra plays the score during a feature film. He’s a hot commodity right now and is a finalist for music director jobs in Fresno, Calif., Illinois and Boise.

Boise is an orchestra that is thinking both inside and outside the box. It’s a community on the rise.

Aram Demirjian

“What excites me about Boise is the artistic opportunities you might not get in larger cities because the connection between its cultural organizations and its audience is closer and less filtered. We don’t have to emulate another orchestra. We’re going to do what’s right for our community, and that opens up a whole realm of possibilities.”

Fun facts: Studied government at Harvard University and is getting married in the fall. His sister Karoun is a reporter for The Washington Post in Moscow.

Michelle Merrill

Current: Detroit Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor

Concert: Oct. 21-22: Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival Overture,” Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Caroline Goulding, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

From: Canton, Texas

When Michelle Merrill was 8, she went trick-or-treating and got something extra with her candy: a card offering piano lessons.

“I asked my mom and dad if I could take lessons,” Merrill, 32, says. “We weren’t a musical family, but they said sure.”

The lessons unlocked her passion for music and led her to become one of the few women in the world on the classical music podium. She later picked up the saxophone, which became her principal instrument.

Now heading into her third season in Detroit, Merrill will made her subscription series debut in 2016. She continues to win international acclaim and is a sought-after guest conductor.

She’s excited about the potential to make music in Boise.

It’s an organization with a great history of being an orchestra for the people.

Michelle Merrill

“It fosters new music, American music and Idaho music, striving to reach its patrons with its own identity,” she says. “Connection to people is how orchestras remain a living piece of art.”

Fun facts: Her husband, Steve, is the Jacksonville (Fla.) Symphony’s principal percussionist. Their cat Pepper loves violin music.

Keitaro Harada

Current: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor

Concert: Nov. 12-13, Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite,” Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Kevin Cole, Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”

From: Tokyo

Keitaro Harada, 31, became a conductor to get a girl. He attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan when he was 17 to further his saxophone studies and met a Korean violinist.

“Koreans and Japanese dating is a big no-no,” he says. “So I met her mother for dinner to ask permission.”

At the end of dinner, she suggested he pursue conducting.

“I said, ‘If I do, can I date your daughter?’ She said only if I become a world-class conductor.”

That started him on his life’s pursuit, and though he no longer dates the violinist, he is grateful to her mom.

He found his true passion as a conductor and went on an international trek to fulfill that goal. Now he hopes to come to Boise.

“What’s most important is my chemistry with the orchestra,” Harada says. “Without that spark it’s not going to work. I’m looking to see how I’m able to make a difference, and how my experience and energy can enrich the culture of the Boise.”

If it’s a good match, then we can learn from each other and create something exciting.

Keitaro Harada

Fun facts: Harada still performs with his saxophone. He opened Richmond Symphony’s “Rush Hour Concert” series, which that brought the orchestra into a local brewery.

Alastair Willis

Current: Freelance conductor, Seattle

Concert: Jan. 27-28, 2017, Debussy’s “Prelude a L’aprés midi d’un Faun,” Grieg’s Piano Concerto with pianist Joachin Achúcarro, Shostakovich’ Symphony No. 5

From: Acton, Mass.

Alastair Willis took his first piano lessons in Moscow, where his international correspondent father worked. When they settled in England five years later, Willis discovered the trumpet and a love of choir. At Bristol University, Willis he played and sang in the student orchestra and choir, and eventually began conducting.

When there was a great conductor working with us, it showed us how big the music could be. That made me want to be a conductor who inspired musicians.

Alastair Willis

“I realized I would be able to affect the music better from the front of the room,” Willis, 45, says.

His studies eventually brought him back to the U.S.

He has been an assistant in Cincinnati and an associate at Seattle Symphony, and recently stepped down after four years as the music director for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. He returned to the Pacific Northwest and performs as an international guest conductor. Now he’s ready for his next home base.

“As I get older, I get wiser,” Willis says. “My life’s aims 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.”

Fun facts: Willis earned a 2009 Grammy nomination with the Nashville Symphony and opera. His sister, Sarah, plays French horn for the Berlin Philharmonic, where she was the first female brass player.

Andrés Franco

Current: Signature Symphony music director (Tulsa, Okla.), Pittsburgh Symphony assistant conductor

Concert: Feb. 17-18, Verdi’s “Overture to La Forza del Destino,” Elgar’s Cello Concerto with cellist Edgar Moreau, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

From: Medellín, Colombia

Andrés Franco will tell you to be careful how you choose your college electives. He came to Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University in 2000 to study piano. Then his college adviser suggested he take a conducting class to “broaden his horizons,” he says. “I loved orchestral music but had no interest in conducting at the time. I took the class anyway.”

One day, his teacher asked him to cover a rehearsal with the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra. He agreed, and as Franco struggled through, his teacher watched from the back.

“It was a test,” Franco, 39, says, and it became his passion. He earned a second master’s in conducting and launched into a successful career, racking up debuts with major symphonies each season.

“Orchestras are important in general, and not just because of the music and entertainment,” Franco says. “There is a moral role. You’re in charge of preserving cultural values.”

Institutions like operas, ballets and orchestras operate as catalysts for creativity, and creativity will play a bigger role in the economy of the 21st century.

Andrés Franco

Fun facts: His father was his first piano teacher. His wife, Victoria Luperi, is principal clarinetist for the Fort Worth Symphony.

Eric Garcia

Current: Bass School of Music, Oklahoma City University, director of orchestral activities

Concert: March 10-11, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with violinist David Kim, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

From: Temple, Texas

Eric Garcia’s musical career started when he got his first drum set at age 4. “I grew up wanting to be a rock drummer,” he says.

By age 10, he was jamming to the radio dial — jazz, rock, pop — when he happened on a classical station and was captivated.

“My parents were encouraging,” Garcia, 38, says. “I’d buy a new classical CD every week, watch PBS and check out scores from the library.”

He began to compose at 13, and saw any concert he could to watch the conductor. He learned piano so he could better break down a score. And as much as he loves to compose, “It was never as exhilarating as conducting,” he says.

It also connects him with people.

“The arts feed off of one another, and a symphony is a vital player,” Garcia says. “It reaches out to the youth and to the community to ignite their imagination and encourage them to open their ears, and stretch their imagination to things that are possible.”

Fun facts: He loves classic foreign films, barbecue at Franklin’s in Austin, Texas, and Coney Island. He recently rescued a Chihuahua/terrier mix named Eddie.

Alexander Micklethwate

Current: Music Director Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba, Canada

Concert: April 7-8, Beethoven’s : Symphony No. 9 with the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale. The rest of the program is TBD.

From: Frankfurt, Germany

More details to come.