An Interview with Alastair Willis
Posted on 11/26/2019
This episode we sit down with conductor Alastair Willis who discusses the phenomenal Salute to Vienna production. Willis mentions how this show is full of holiday cheer, the difficulties of conducting such an intricate production, and more! See Alastair and the wonderful holiday performance Salute to Vienna on Dec 31 for a special New Year's Eve treat!
READ THE TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW BELOW
Featuring Kelly from All Access and special guest Alastair Willis from Salute to Vienna
Kelly: And we're back on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey. I'm Kelly Blithe your host. And every year at the State Theatre we ring in the new year with a tradition, we are celebrating the 14th year for this concert spectacular. We love it. Every year people ask us when we'll bring it back, are we bringing it back? And every year it's just a treat to bring to the State Theatre stage to celebrate New Years in downtown New Brunswick. This year is no exception, Salute to Vienna returns to the State Theatre Tuesday December 31st, a 5pm performance. So it gives you plenty of time to watch the performance, get dinner afterwards, and then check out the fireworks in New Brunswick. So with us today is the conductor for this performance of Salute to Vienna this year, Alastair Willis. Welcome Alastair!
Alastair: Thanks Kelly!
Kelly: So tell us about Salute to Vienna and how you got started with this wonderful tradition?
Alastair: Well I'm so thrilled to hear about the tradition it's been in New Jersey, and I am just thrilled to be part of this Salute to Vienna team. They do concerts like the one you've been experiencing for 14 years in over 20 cities around the world, and this is my second year of doing one, and I couldn't be more thrilled to be coming to the East Coast and performing in New Jersey.
Kelly: Great! And have you ever performed in New Jersey before?
Alastair: Yes several years ago I had the honor of conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra a couple of times. So I am a bit familiar and I was born in Boston not too far away so I am an East Coaster.
Kelly: Wow! Look at that look at that. Well we love Salute to Vienna it changes every year, but it still has that awesome ring in the new year kind of feel. That Viennese celebration. And this is quite a production Alastair that goes on. When do you get brought into the mix for rehearsals and to really get it started for the year?
Alastair: Well I join just after Christmas. So we have other performances. We have performances in Philadelphia, in New York, and in DC, Hartford and Boston just in case you missed the New Jersey one we're not too far away if you've got to catch us somewhere. And it is, your right an incredible production. Not only fantastic orchestra, but we have singers coming in from Europe, we have Ballet dancers, we have ballroom dancers coming in from Europe from Vienna. And it's just, what makes it so successful is it's so happy. It's a tradition because this music makes us all feel so good, and it's so joyful it's just what we need at the end of the year.
Kelly: It is for sure. And you're talking about the dancers and very talented dancers indeed. I would have to think that, you know it's one thing to be with the orchestra and conducting them but to kind of time it with the dancers and making sure that they're OK. Do you find that it's an added level for you? Because I'm guessing this is a unique performance for you in terms of being a conductor.
Alastair: It certainly is. In fact, most conductors will tell you the hardest things to conduct in the world are Strauss Waltzs. And second, is opera. And why opera? Because opera has singers, has dancers, has orchestra, has everything that a Salute to Vienna concert has. So I've got two great singers, Michael Heim and Peggy Steiner and they are just phenomenal in their own light. And we have some polkas that will be danced by a ballet company and some ballroom dancers to do the Waltzs, and my job is to make sure I'm hitting the tempos of all of the above that they all want. And my role is accompany. And that's a skill that you learn in opera especially, or conducting a concerto for piano lets say in a concert, that to put it all together one after the other, and orchestra number, a ballet number, a ballroom, and then a solo soprano or a solo tenor vocal number. It is very difficult to conduct but I love this challenge. And making music with everybody and when it all works it's just magic.
Kelly: It is indeed. And I'll tell you what's also magic the fact that it's ringing in 2020, I don't know about you but that sounds strange to me.
Alastair: What happened to 2010 I thought that was the last big one?
Kelly: It was it was. So Alastair tell us about your background. You said you were born in Boston and was music always a part of your life? Did you come from a musical family?
Alastair: Oh I do yes. I always had music going on at home. My Dad loved Jazz, the Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong era. And my Mother played the piano a little bit. But my main musical inspiration came from my oldest sister Sarah, who discovered the French horn when she was 13, never looked back. And she now plays with the Berlin Philharmonic. So to have this around when I was growing up made just a big impact on me, and I studied music for the rest of my life and I'm still studying it.
Kelly: Yeah of course you're right. As you should right? There's continuing things to happen in the music world. We are talking about Salute to Vienna, Tuesday December 31st at the State Theatre a 5pm performance. It's an annual favor at the State Theatre. People come back year after year we're celebrating its 14th year at the State Theatre, and we are talking with conductor Alastair Willis who will be joining us with the dancers and the singers and it's just going to be a beautiful spectacle. So Alastair do you have any dance background at all? If they were to say, can you do a little something, how would you feel about that?
Alastair: [Laughs] You know I always thought that they were going to turn to me and involve me in some way. I actually do have a bit of dance background, and I've conducted a lot of ballet as well. But my mother was, still is a freelance dance critic so I've grown up in the ballet world. So we've grown up when we lived in Russia my Dad was a journalist, you know we would go to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kirov Ballet all the time and there's dance in my blood and I just wish that I could get off the podium and dance with these amazing dancers. Well if I can because they're so great. I refine my dancing just to my three foot by three foot podium.
Kelly: [Laughs] So take us back to your first conducting gig. Do you remember when that was, where'd you get your big break?
Alastair: Oh I'll never forget my first conducting gig. It was with the Chamber Choir at Bristol University where I was reading music in England. And we had a couple of pieces on the program and I remember being very nervous and I walked out and I turned to the audience and I bowed and then I turned my back to them. And I kind of forgot that they were there. I was so engrossed in the music that 20 minutes later we finished the piece, and there was an applause, and "Oh! The audience is there!" I had forgot where I was, because it seems awfully rude to turn your back on an audience who has paid to be there. But it's just such a privilege and an honor to make music and to bring such joy, especially with this Salute to Vienna program at the end of a tough year for all of us I'm sure. To have this happiness, this sunshine just really make us smile at the time we need it.
Kelly: Yes, I agree. So what are some of the selections that we can expect to hear on New Year's Eve?
Alastair: Well there are always going to be the traditional favorites like the Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March, and the Die Fledermaus Overture is what we're starting with, just one of my all-time favorite overtures. But there are other Waltzs that I don't know, that I've never conducted before, and I'm studying to make sure that we're going to get them great. We have wonderful overtures, the Suppe Morning Noon and Night in Vienna just because, what did the Viennese do morning noon and night, they danced! To Waltzs, to parties, they had the greatest parties back then and we're extending that to New Jersey and bringing the party to you. We've got Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, we've got some gypsy music, we've got some Hungarian music because of course Vienna the Austrio-Hungarian empire was what was happening at the time so Vienna was filled with Hungarian music as well. Just a real variety of great music and that's the best thing about the Strauss family. They were such a dynasty they wrote so much music. And there's so much to choose from, we have a great program.
Kelly: Yes, for sure. And of course this is a recreation of the beloved concert that has welcome the new years for over 80 years in Vienna. Have you ever experienced this in Vienna?
Alastair: I wish I could get to the Musikverein in Vienna to experience it but let me tell you, I'm so glad that they broadcast it live on television around the world because, I've missed a few I've got to be honest, but I've seen many of them. And they're just so inspiring and the sound, that would be my dream to be there live and experience it in the whole one year.
Kelly: Well I'll tell you it certainly feels like Vienna when Salute to Vienna comes to town every year it is just something that we look forward to. Even though some people when they hear the word opera and they get scared or classical and they get scared, or Waltzs, and no it really is an all ages show. And I see generations, I see families, grandparents bring their grandchildren and they just love it and enjoy it. And what's great about it, it's a 5pm performance. Do you see that when you're doing Salute to Vienna that it brings in different generations?
Alastair: I'm so glad you mentioned it. Yes, it is so perfect for the entire family and of course the holidays and of course the end of the year is a perfect time to be with family. To unite with music it's just such a beautiful thing. I do that with my family when I can, well all through the year I'm doing that of course with my family. But yes, it's for all ages and yes I see that a lot.
Kelly: Yes. And so Alastiar other than Salute to Vienna do you see yourself, what is in the future for you? You mentioned that you have conducted once before the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra which are good friends who come to the State Theatre often. What other things do you have? You're a very talented guy I'm sure you have a whole bunch of stuff coming up.
Alastair: Well I'm actually entering my busiest part of the season right now for the next 13 weeks. And yes I'm currently the musical director with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in Indiana where I'm calling you from, and when I'm not conducting here I continue to guest conduct around the world and couldn't be more thrilled to bring the world of Vienna to the East Coast in the Salute to Vienna concert in December.
Kelly: Great well Alastair for those that are on the fence and are thinking about whether they should come or not, what's your 30 second pitch of why they should come and see Salute to Vienna?
Alastair: This is a happy concert. Come and see and hear and see and feel the joy that will really end the year with a smile on our faces. Hear magnificent musicians, talented dancers, ballet dancers, and incredible singers. And I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at the time of year if there's a Salute to Vienna concert going on. I love it.
Kelly: I love it I love it. We are talking to Alastiar Willis, the conductor for the upcoming Salute to Vienna New Year's Eve concert happening at the State Theatre Tuesday December 31st, a 5pm performance New Year's Eve. Come check it out. There's the performance, there's dinner after in downtown New Brunswick if you'd like it, and there's fireworks just across the street that go off the Heldridge hotel just across the street from the State Theatre so you can make an evening of it. It's going to be a fantastic evening in New Brunswick on New Year's Eve you can get tickets on STNJ.org. Alastair Willis thank you so much and we look forward to seeing you on New Year's Eve with Salute to Vienna!
Alastair: Thanks so much Kelly. What a pleasure.