Sunday, October 24, 1999

CSO assistant conductor debuts

Ex-'Fame' performer kicks off tenure here

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “I was a kid from Fame,” says Alastair Willis, the new assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

        The experience with a show about talented school kids should help Mr. Willis relate to part of his CSO job. He is the new conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra, which begins its 36th season today.

        His British accent is evidence that the 28-year-old maestro was raised in Surrey, England, even though he was born in Acton, Mass.

        Mr. Willis became interested in conducting as a college student at Bristol University, England. He finished a teaching degree, and was conducting choirs and youth orchestras around London, when he spotted an ad in a London paper. It was a casting call for a new production of Famethe Musical.

        “They wanted a young actor to play the trumpet,” he says. “Since I have a little dance ability, a lot of acting experience, could sing and also play the trumpet, the combination got me the job,” he says.

        It was a 12-month contract to play a principal role in the award-winning show. He is featured on the original London cast recording.

        Despite the glamour, “I never took my eye off conducting,” he says.

Academic training
        In 1996, he won a scholarship to study at Rice University in Houston with Larry Rachleff, where he received his master's degree last summer. He also won a fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony, where he worked with conductors such as Seiji Ozawa, Robert Spano, James Conlon and Jorma Panula, the legendary teacher at the Sibelius Academy in Finland.

        “Every conductor that I see in concert has been a mentor of some sort,” he says. “It's such a lesson to see a conductor in rehearsal.”

        Cincinnati is his first job with a major orchestra. Besides serving as “an extra set of ears” for maestros Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Erich Kunzel and John Morris Russell, Mr. Willis will be working on the CSO's Sound Discoveries educational project, funded by arts patron Patricia Corbett and the Corbett Foundation.

        “My duties (with Sound Discoveries) have not been fine-tuned yet, but I thrive on working with children,” he says. So far, he's had a busy transition, auditioning more than 200 musicians for the Youth Symphony in early September.

        “I am completely overwhelmed with the talent here,” the young conductor says. His goal this year is “to stretch them with tricky but challenging and rewarding repertoire.”

What, no rugby on TV?
        He recently moved into an apartment in Hyde Park. In his free time “I dream about playing sports again — soccer, rugby and cricket,” he says.

        He was disappointed not to find the Rugby World Cup on TV. “It's huge, but obviously it doesn't mean too much to you over here.”

        Happily, he has been able to see the games at Nicholson's Irish Pub, downtown.

        Will he take out his trumpet and perform with the Youth Symphony? He laughs.

        “Not unless I can dance at the same time!”


        • What: Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra, Alastair Willis, conductor and music director; May Festival Youth Chorus, James Bagwell, director.

        • When: 3 p.m. today.

        • Where: St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Montgomery.

        • Tickets: $5; $3 students ages 10 and up, at the door.

        • The program: Verdi, La Forza del Destino Overture and Sibelius, Symphony No. 2, finale. Also, five selections by the Youth Chorus.


        • What: The CCM Concert Orchestra Halloween Concert, Alastair Willis guest conductor, and CCM student conductors.

        • When: 4 p.m. next Sunday.

        • Where: Corbett Auditorium.

        • Tickets: $10; $5 students. 556-4183.

        • The program: Verdi, Dies Irae from Requeim; Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre; Berlioz, March to the Scaffold from Symphonie fantastique and more.

        • Information: 744-3208.


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