Alastair Willis' résumé reads like a world tour. He started playing piano when he was a boy in Russia, took up trumpet and then conducting while he was living in England, continued his conducting studies in Houston, toured Japan and other foreign lands with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, and held posts with orchestras in Cincinnati and Seattle, where he lives now.
This week, Willis, 37, who speaks with a British accent, has set his sights on Lexington, where he is the ninth candidate to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Every conductor needs an orchestra, and every orchestra needs a conductor,” Willis says when asked what attracted him to Lexington. “My research of this area and this orchestra has showed wonderful support for the arts and wonderful potential for future growth here, and I don't know any conductor who's currently not got a music director position who wouldn't be interested in that.”
After one rehearsal, on Monday night, Willis had a good impression of the Phil, saying, “The orchestra seems open to what I have to offer.”
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On Tuesday, he threw the players a bit of a curve ball, rehearsing Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round, the opening number of Friday's concert. It requires the violins and violas to stand as opposing orchestras, with the basses and cellos seated in the middle. After some initial confusion, he pulled a fairly flowing rehearsal out of the players.
Willis had no hesitation about coming in and shaking things up a bit.
“Why have we always played in the form we always play in?” Willis asks, referring to the Phil's traditional seating arrangement. “Because it works. Because it's how orchestras historically sound best, for most of the repertoire. No one's ever going to change that, but I love to find the variety.”
Willis has experienced a lot of variety in the past few years. He was in Cincinnati in the late 1990s for a year as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras and director of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.
He says he loved the experience working under symphony conductor Jesús López- Cobos and pops conductor Erich Kunzel, but Cincy didn't offer what he thought he really needed: “podium time.”
So Willis moved to Seattle, where as assistant and then resident conductor he was able to direct more than 100 performances in three years.
In 2003, he went the free-lance route, guest-conducting around the world and hanging out, when he could, with leading orchestras. He has a particular in with the Berlin Philharmonic, where his sister, Sarah Willis, plays fourth horn.
Willis cites his sister, who is older, as his inspiration because of the singular focus she had on playing the horn from a young age.
He took up trumpet, wanting to keep up with his sister but certainly not wanting to do the same thing she was doing. The move to conducting came out of some youthful boasting while he was a student, singing in the choir at Bristol University in England.
“I was bored with the conductors I was playing with or singing with,” Willis says. He complained “from the bass section of the choir, saying, ‘Oh, I could do better than that,' ‘Oh, she's dreadful,' and so when it came around to auditions, the guys said, ‘OK, let's see if you can do it.' And I won the audition and lost all of my friends.
“I haven't looked back, really.”
And the free-lancer has a lot to look forward to, including an upcoming tour with Silk Road, a project that Ma started to explore indigenous music of Chinese cultures on ancient trade routes.
“Yo-Yo Ma is just the most incredible musician, person and all-around package in classical music,” Willis says. Noting that the Silk Road trade routes were cultural melting pots, Willis says, “His vision was you could have a throat singer from Mongolia with an instrument from Persia with an instrument from Uzbekistan with a composer from southern Russia. It really is a mix of different cultures … coming together in a fusion of harmony, being neighbors and standing for so much more than just a nice concert.”
Conducting with the Silk Road has been one part of a well-traveled career that Willis clearly has enjoyed.
“I've been fortunate to travel all over the world, guest conducting, which is wonderful,” he says. “No wife, no kids, no mortgage, and now's the time to be doing that sort of thing.
“I'd like to settle down and have all three of those things someday.”
This week, and Friday's concert, will go a long way toward determining whether someday is soon, in Lexington.