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Something about Alastair Willis and his upcoming role as guest conductor for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) makes one think about pairings.

First, there’s the program Willis will be leading in Benaroya Hall for three concerts beginning Thursday. It begins and ends with serenades, the first by Elgar and the second by Tchaikovsky. Between them, there’s a rarely heard symphony begun by Mozart but completed by Michael Haydn, younger brother of the more famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn.

There’s also Willis’ new job as music director for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, truly a tale of two cities.

“We’re serving Bloomington and Springfield,” says Willis recently by phone.

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“They’re similar in size and there is a lot of competition between the two guilds to outdo each other. It’s frightening. The cities are about an hour apart, and the orchestra does everything in doubles. Last night was the season opener in Bloomington. Tonight it’s in Springfield.”

Finally, there is Willis himself. Born in Acton, Mass., the former associate conductor for Seattle Symphony lived with his family in Russia for five years (his father was a journalist) before settling in England. Willis lived there until the age of 25 and has dual citizenship.

One thing about Willis that is undivided: his love for Seattle, where he has lived since his appointment in 2000 as Seattle Symphony’s assistant conductor. He was promoted a year later to associate conductor and remained with SSO until 2003.

Willis’ many memories from that period include stepping in for then-music director Gerard Schwarz for the SSO’s opening-night gala in 2001. The event was scheduled shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Planes were grounded, and Schwarz could not leave England.

“But the best memory I have, apart from ongoing friendships with Seattle Symphony musicians, is getting a lot of podium time and conducting every kind of repertoire,” Willis says. “It helped make me who I am today.”

Willis’ return engagement includes music he loves.

“Starting the concert with an English piece (Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for Strings) is like a dream. There’s a wistfulness and nostalgia there that makes me homesick. The Tchaikovsky (Serenade in C major for Strings) is a big piece, and I have a Seattle connection with it. George Balanchine created a ballet out of it, and I’ve had the honor of conducting several performances of that with Pacific Northwest Ballet.”

As for the Mozart-Haydn Symphony No. 37 in G major, Willis says “it’s quite good — I like it. It’s not as brilliant as pure Mozart. But it plays an important part in my appreciation of his genius elsewhere.”

Also on the bill is Franz Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in C major for Cello and Orchestra, which will feature guest cellist Pavel Gomziakov.

Willis received his master of music degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, and his many conducting appearances include the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.

Last year, Willis was on the road 39 weeks. In 2013, he is traveling a full six months.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to Seattle and sleeping in my own bed,” he says.

Tom Keogh:

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