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First of four director candidates conducts Illinois Symphony in fiery season opener

A conductor looks toward the cello section as he leads a symphony orchestra.
Marian Lenhard
Mahler Competition
In addition to assisting the Fort Worth Symphony, Taichi Fukumura recently conducted the Bamberg Symphony at the 2023 Mahler Competition (pictured). He is the first of four conductor candidates to lead the Illinois Symphony Orchestra this season.

Taichi Fukumura is the first of four candidates visiting Bloomington-Normal for a head-to-head (to-head-to-head) battle for the top job at the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. The departure of Ken Lam after five seasons was followed by a year of guest conductors as the search committee and orchestra musicians narrowed a pool of 55 invited applicants to four: Fukumura, Yaniv Dinur, Tania Miller and Naomi Woo.

Fukumura leads the ISO in a season opener titled “Fire & Fanfare” on Saturday at the Center for Performing Arts on Illinois State University’s campus.

As assistant conductor for the Fort Worth Symphony, Fukumura will conduct more than 60 performances this year. He opted to not renew his two-year contract, looking for the next big thing in his career. Fukumura doesn’t know who nominated him to apply for the music directorship at Illinois Symphony, but was delighted to find it ticks all the boxes.

The up-and-coming conductor's career has already been long and quite storied. Born in Japan and raised in Boston, Fukumura started playing violin at age 3. By 16, he was conducting.

“I started my own orchestra,” he said. “I was already directing and collaborating with people before I knew to be afraid of it. It’s something I’ve always done. Every time I put together a musical performance, I try to bring that.”

By that, he means “connecting with the community, directly, producing something meaningful and impactful — every time.”

The ISO’s 16-week contract affords Fukumura the stability of his own orchestra to build an artistic vision and the flexibility to pursue guest conducting.

“The connection a conductor makes with a community is not necessarily correlated with the weeks or the time,” he said. “It’s more the interest and the energy that goes into it. On the other hand, it does allow me to guest conduct and develop my artistry. That’s in the best interest of the orchestra. Every time their music director goes somewhere — assists, let’s say, the London Symphony — there’s this guy and people read and say he’s the music director of Illinois Symphony Orchestra. Then all these people all around the world are hearing what is happening here in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal.”

A cellist holding his instrument leans against an ornate, gold-hued banister.
Carlin Ma
Brannon Cho
Cellist Brannon Cho joins conductor candidate Taichi Fukumura for Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No. 1"

Fukumura previously spent time in the Midwest. He was assistant conductor with Chicago Sinfonietta, assisted the Chicago Philharmonic, and studied at Northwestern University. That’s where he met Brannon Cho, a prodigious young cellist whose accolades thus far include top prizes at the International Paulo Cello Competition and Queen Elisabeth, Naumburg and Cassadó International Cello Competitions, to name a few.

This weekend’s program is a reunion for Fukumura and Cho; the latter will play one of the most difficult pieces in the cello repertoire: Shostakovich’s “Cello Concerto No. 1.”

The ISO’s central Midwest location is appealing to Fukumura.

“Geographically, it’s in a very good position,” he said. “We are right in between Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. If we can create something artistically interesting enough, and something that makes an impact, we can attract very high-quality musicians from these surrounding mega music cities.”

That, he said, positions the orchestra for artistic growth, building on momentum created by recent mergers and collaborations with universities in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal.

“The orchestra is set up very well to take off from here,” Fukumura said.

"Fire & Fanfare"

Each candidate submitted a proposal for a full season of 13 programs. Saturday's season opener, collectively titled “Fire & Fanfare,” combines a few ideas from Fukumura’s proposal, and achieves his three main objectives in trying to get to know an orchestra.

“One is that big, famous, well-known symphonic work that the orchestra has already played, not too long ago; that is the Tchaikovsky ‘Symphony No. 4.’ It gives us an opportunity to focus on getting to know each other artistically and digging deep to see how we can do something with this piece that we have not done before.”

Second on the list is accompanying, hence the Shostakovich concerto and Cho. And finally, Fukumura aims to expose audiences and the orchestra to something brand new. To that end, he selected Arturo Marquez’ “Danzon No. 2.”

“He’s a wonderful Mexican living composer, very much part of the performing canon, and yet, Illinois Symphony has never had the occasion to perform his works.”

The program is strategically crafted to not just hit those three marks but to ensure all of ISO’s members get a chance to interact with Fukumura. The Marquez and Shostakovich call for a keyboardist, for example. And Marquez and Tchaikovsky each include three percussion parts — a rarity for large symphonic works.

More ephemerally, the program says something about what life was like in various times and places. Written in 1994, “Danzon No. 2” was crafted during a period of ground-breaking cross-cultural musical experimentation. Here, Marquez folds native rhythms of Veracruz into a rich orchestral instrumentation.

Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, both Russian, offer peeks into internal and external battles. Shostakovich was a Soviet-era composer navigating the oppressive censorship of Stalin’s regime.

“This was a place and time where expression was limited,” Fukumura said. “We’re talking about disappearances. He figured out a way to still be himself, express what he needed to express and not be erased.”

Tchaikovsky’s plight was with himself: the composer battled depression and crippling self-doubt. His “Symphony No. 4” is ironically exuberant, written at the height of the composer’s malaise.

“I struggled with this for a long time — to understand that fanfare,” said Fukumura. “I was never convinced that it came from true happiness. Do you know how physically exhausting it is to play that music? It’s the unbalance of almost forceful, tortuous effort to be so delighted. This was an outpouring of [Tchaikovsky’s] soul into this piece of music. This was his way to try and find light in his life.”

The Illinois Symphony led by conductor candidate Taichi Fukumura plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Center for Performing Arts, 400 W. Beaufort St., Normal. Tickets are $21-$63 at (309) 438-2535 and ilsymphony.org. Supplementary programming includes concert comments at 6:30 p.m. and afterparty in the College of Business atrium, 410 S. University St.

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