Conductor Alastair Willis
The following has been adapted from an interview conducted by Michael Albert.
What inspired you to pursue conducting as a profession?
I played trumpet and sang in choirs when I was younger for a few incredibly inspiring conductors who showed me that music can be life changing. I've sought to share this passion with others ever since.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
My earliest and greatest influence was my sister, Sarah, (still is to this day!) who plays the French horn in the Berlin Philharmonic.
What was your first encounter with the music of Strauss or other Viennese composers that you can remember?
Hearing Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in a concert when I was 13 inspired me to learn the trumpet. I loved studying the Viennese classical composers at school. From an early age, our family had a tradition of watching the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert on TV. I took ballroom dancing lessons when I was in my teens and often dreamed to dance as smoothly and gracefully as the Viennese dancers.
Your career has taken you across the globe. What is your favorite concert hall to work in, and why?
There are so many special concert halls around the world, but I'd have to say conducting in Carnegie Hall for the first time was a very special experience—the acoustics are amazing for the audience and for the musicians, who can hear themselves very well across the stage (which is not often the case in so many halls).
Do audiences in various countries or cultures respond differently, or in unexpected ways, to classical music?
Yes, I've noticed a difference. There are always exceptions, but in general I've found North American audiences don't applaud as long as European audiences; the quietest (and perhaps the most polite) are in Asia; the most vocally joyous are in Latin America. In my experience, audiences everywhere love to clap along with the music where appropriate and when encouraged!
When preparing for Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert, what are some of the challenges you encounter? For me, the biggest challenge is not knowing the orchestra or the soloists in advance, but this is also one of the most exciting things about these concerts-- how quickly we can come together and find solutions to bring these masterpieces to life. My conducting teachers always told me that the hardest things to conduct well are Viennese waltzes. Anyone can conduct a waltz with no tempo changes or rubato, or change of dynamics etc., For me, Viennese music has its own unique style combination of rubato, finesse, lightness, charm, drama, character, color, and much more, which demands care and attention for every moment of each delicate phrase. I can't relax for a second while conducting! This music also demands a high level of trust between conductor and orchestra. As a conductor, it's important to show enough, but not to show too much or over-conduct as to get in the way of the musicians and strangle the music.
Your first meeting with the orchestra members is only one week before the Salute to Vienna concerts, and you have only two full rehearsals together. What goals do you set for yourself in these fast rehearsal processes? Before meeting the orchestra, I meet with the soloists and the dancers to understand what they need and agree on tempos. Then, the goal is to get through all the music and try to achieve (as close as possible) the special Viennese musical sound and style. I need to make sure that we are all listening to the singers, and that we have the flexibility to be spontaneous. Having conducted all over the world, do you think there is something universal about the works of Strauss and his contemporaries that audiences respond to, no matter where they’re from? Yes! In general, this is happy music that brings joy, pleasure, smiles, and comfort to any audience. When performed at New Year's, that special time when people universally celebrate and come together, it can offer an extremely powerful and positive experience.