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Upcoming season brings 4 candidates vying for Illinois Symphony's top job

Yaniv Dinur, Taichi Fukumura, Tania Miller and Naomi Woo
Illinois Symphony Orchestra
The candidates for Illinois Symphony Orchestra's next music director are, from left, Yaniv Dinur, Taichi Fukumura, Tania Miller and Naomi Woo.

The Illinois Symphony is ramping up for next season that will bring four candidates vying for the podium to Bloomington-Normal as the orchestra looks for its next music director.

Taichi Fukumura, Yaniv Dinur, Tania Miller and Naomi Woo will each lead the ISO in two programs beginning in October. A mix of classics and contemporary works, plus two pops concerts, pepper the season, which was a joint curatorial effort between the candidates and former music director Ken Lam.

It is a time of change for the Illinois Symphony. The 30-year-old orchestra, which has dual operations in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal, changed venues last fall, moving from the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA) to Illinois State University’s Center for Performing Arts. Guest conductors filled in last season as the search committee whittled 55 music director applications to four finalists and two alternates.

For now, fans of the orchestra are rolling with the changes.

“The move to ISU has been very good,” said executive director Trevor Orthmann, who cites ease of parking and access as the primary benefits. A right-sized house and optimal acoustics make up for the absence of a backstage area and concessions, pros of the BCPA.

Orthmann confirmed the ISO's financial health is good, and the box office has started to bounce back after inevitable pandemic slumps. But season tickets sales, which saw declines nationally pre-pandemic as patrons’ buying habits changed, have not recovered.

Single ticket buyers have started to plan further ahead, but still aren’t willing to make a season-long commitment. While last winter’s John Williams tribute was the best-selling concert on record, others were more sparsely attended.

“The climate moving out of the pandemic offered challenges in terms of building up audiences once again,” said assistant conductor Jacobsen Woollen. “But it offered a lot of opportunity in the sense of fresh space and, I would say, a climate of exciting and productive experimentation.”

Orchestra patrons are not well documented for adventurousness. Woollen said the key is establishing trust with an audience, giving them confidence in the ISO’s choices.

“I think, little by little, we’re building that,” he said. “The response to the new venue in Bloomington-Normal was great. Our playing around a little bit with the format of the concerts and sprinkling in some slightly unfamiliar or untraditional repertoire was also very well received. So I hope that they’re prepared to follow us into the great unknown.”

Maestro Fukumura, assistant conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, kicks off the season Oct. 21 with a program featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” and soloist Brannon Cho playing “Cello Concerto No. 1” by Shostakovich. Fukumura returns Dec. 16 to conduct the popular "Holiday Pops in the Heartland."

Dinur is currently music director of the New Bedford Symphony and resident conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He visits on Nov. 4 and Jan. 27, the latter a family-friendly pops concert highlighting symphonic pieces memorialized in cartoons.

Miller is music director emerita of Canada’s Victoria Symphony and interim principal conductor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. She comes for back-to-back appearances Feb. 17 and April 13, with lesser-known highlights of those programs, including Carl Nielsen’s “Symphony No. 5” and ISO principal oboe Russell Hoffman tackling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ concerto for that instrument.

And Woo will ascend the podium on Dec. 2 for a chamber concert featuring ISO concertmaster Roy Meyer at Second Presbyterian Church. She returns May 4 for the season finale with works by Grieg, Boulanger, Hindemith and Saariaho. Woo is an artistic partner at Orchestre Metropolitan in Montreal.

Sips & Sounds

Also ahead, a new partnership with Keg Grove Brewing Company in Bloomington called Sips & Sounds. The series of happy hour concerts on the brewery's patio will feature the orchestra’s brass quintet and string quartet on alternate dates (July 27, Aug. 31 and Sept. 14), replacing the Around the Town series with a low-stakes, casual encounter with classical music.

The full 2023-24 line-up and season tickets will be available on the ISO’s website soon. Details about Sips & Sounds are also available at ilsymphony.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.