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Willis Towers in FVSO Debut

Mar. 9, 2019

Written by Christopher Profit

The Fox Valley Symphony’s 2018-19 Concert Series continued to amaze under Alastair Willis, the latest guest conductor in the year-long round-robin that has been a delight for performers and concertgoers alike. Willis, the lanky Massachusetts transplant with roots in both England and Moscow, showed his artistic range starting with Mason Bates’ Mothership, a “techno-scherzo” opener that puts a new twist on a traditional symphonic form. Where we’d normally expect percussion, Bates inserts sampled sounds from a MacBook, which was both tasteful and appropriate. Fun!

Next up was wunderkind cellist Alexander Hersh performing the technically challenging Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, Op 107. At 25 years old, one would expect a work in progress, but Hersh proved he deserves the spotlight as every single phrase was a perfection. This Shostakovich demands attention to detail, and Hersh delivered with great control, rich tone and a technical ability far beyond his years – his 2nd movement double-stops were stunning. The third movement was especially impressive – a six-minute solo fantasy and technical showpiece that was rich and full and dark and astute. His Rogeri cello is in good hands.

But forget the announced program – Hersh brought down the house with a first-half encore that won’t soon be forgotten. Dusting off his Midwest niceties, he asked to share a showstopper (the audience wouldn’t have let him go anyway). It was Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio - one-third Asian-steppe sad-song, one-third fire-ride, and one-third downfall of Rome. Singing along at times, Hersch worked his way through simultaneous pizzicatos in one hand and rich bow-strokes with the other, plucking on strings south of the bridge with his right hand while doing the same left-handed near the nut, and energetic rhythms accentuating bow-struck open-strings leading to bouncing left-hand hammer-ons. Not what you’d expect for this instrument, but Hersh showed that the unexpected is often the most enjoyable. Bravo.

The second half consisted of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet and was really a suitable showcase for this guest conductor to polish his relationship with the audience. Everyone knows the variations of the Shakespeare story – boy & girl meet, forbidden love ensues, west-side gangs dance the mambo, all that. But Maestro Willis offered a poetic interlude between each of Prokofiev’s selections to draw the story and the music together. Part of this round-robin audition that makes is so fun and so tricky is that guest each conductor has had to sell themselves to not only the performers but to the audience, and for some of the prior guests it’s been a challenge. But Willis got it right. His humorous thick-brit transitions were delightful, recited entirely from memory, and ended with the audience summoning “Romeo” in thousand-voice unison.

Musically, the night was solid. Willis was firmly in control of the ensemble, showing experienced leadership, confident music-making, and a rapport with the performers that while short in time seemed to bring out their best work so far. Willis set the bar quite high for the final conductor, and with the great success of this last concert the prize is his to lose.

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