Grammy-nominated Alastair Willis is guest-conducting the Seattle Symphony’s traditional, end-of-the-year performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
It’s not unusual for Seattle Symphony to invite guest conductors to take charge of its traditional, end-of-the-year performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, arguably the most famous symphony in the world.
This year’s conductor, Grammy-nominated Alastair Willis, will be leading the Seattle orchestra through the monumental Ninth for the first time. But it won’t be his first participation in a performance of Beethoven’s 1842 masterwork at Benaroya Hall.
In 2014, Willis received permission from Matthew Halls, guest conductor, and Joseph Crnko, Seattle Symphony associate conductor for choral activities, to join the bass section of the Seattle Symphony Chorale for performances of the Ninth. Willis was set to conduct it in Dubai with the Qatar Philharmonic in February 2015. He was hoping to gain a few insights into the piece from the other side of the podium. The strategy worked.
Seattle Symphony: Beethoven Symphony No. 9
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28-30 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle.; $27-$131 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org.
“I’m very grateful to the Chorale for letting me join in,” says Willis, who served as a Seattle Symphony associate conductor from 2000 to 2003.
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“It gave me a personal connection with the Ninth. I saw the strengths of all the elements involved. I gained respect and compassion for the singers. From my vantage point in the bass section behind the orchestra, I couldn’t get a clue about orchestral balance. So it’s very hard. But I did see how some of the instrumentalists were getting attention and direction from the conductor. That was instructive.”
This year’s post-Christmas performances of Symphony No. 9 are part of a program that includes Mozart’s 1791 “The Magic Flute Overture” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1925, stunningly beautiful “Flos Campi” (“Flower of the Field”).The latter has never been performed by Seattle Symphony.
The four vocal soloists for the Ninth are soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak, tenor Isaiah Bell and baritone Michael Sumuel.
Many music scholars and conductors consider the Ninth the most important work in the development of 19th-century music, one that broke with conventions in composition, bridged the Classical and Romantic eras in music, and required an entire chorus of voices in the fourth movement to take the Ninth where instruments alone can’t.
“Beethoven took Mozart’s and Hayden’s Classical-era forms and blew them apart,” Willis says. “Classical-music concerts had been for the people who could afford them — princes and nobility. Beethoven said his music is for everybody. He brought trombones and the piccolo, associated with outdoor music for the masses, into the concert hall. His revolution started in the streets.”
There are as many ways to interpret the Ninth as there are conductors to take it on. The important thing is to become immersed in the journey.
“I can find a million discoveries in it,” says Willis, “and I translate that into what I can give when I conduct. There’s somebody in the audience who has never heard the Ninth before. So that’s who you’re doing it for.”
Willis recently completed four years as music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, and has become director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. He loves Seattle, where he has lived since his appointment as Seattle Symphony’s assistant conductor. He was promoted a year later to associate.
Willis credits the variety of repertoire he conducted at Seattle Symphony for his confidence at the podium. He famously stepped in for then-music director Gerard Schwarz — the latter’s plane grounded in England immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and took charge of that year’s opening-night gala.
Though he is on the road as a globe-trotting guest conductor up to six months a year, Willis finds time to lend a hand at home. He recently conducted his 45th “The Nutcracker” for Pacific Northwest Ballet, something he’s done the last seven or eight years.
Principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi is soloist on Vaughan Williams’ “Flos Campi,” a suite inspired by “Song of Songs” and its voices of two yearning lovers. “Flos Campi” stirs a sense of oceanic love and desire, yet is tempered by a haunting feeling of distant memory and mortality.
Assadi says the work’s precise meaning for Vaughan Williams is a mystery.
“I’m so happy to be learning this piece,” she says. “It’s gorgeous and suited for the viola. It’s an enigma about what Vaughan Williams had in mind when he wrote it. There is a chorus but no words. It’s not a religious piece. It’s unabashedly about love.”