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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Alejandro Gómez Guillén conducts Illinois Symphony at Second Presbyterian, filling in for director finalist Naomi Woo

A man in a suit coat and white shirt with open collar leans against a marble banister overlooking a bustling, opulent train station.
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Illinois Symphony
Omaha Symphony Assistant Conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén is an alternate in the Illinois Symphony's music director search. He fills in Saturday for Naomi Woo, who remains a candidate and will visit Bloomington-Normal in May 2024.

Illinois Symphony plays its first chamber concert of the season this weekend with a trio of works highlighting the orchestra’s string section at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.

Music director candidate Naomi Woo was scheduled to lead the orchestra Saturday. Due to a sudden family emergency, Woo is unable to attend and guest conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén has stepped in with about a week’s notice, leading the ISO in works by Mozart, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw under the umbrella title, “Sizzling Strings.”

“It’s the kind of repertoire you’ll never feel ready on,” Guillén said. “You just feel as ready as you can be, and then take that moment of present music making with great musicians and react to what’s actually happening in front of you. That’s, I think, what I love most of what I do as a conductor.”

Guillén is an alternate in the orchestra’s search for a new conductor. He is presently assistant conductor of the Omaha Symphony and led the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in Bloomington, Indiana, for seven seasons. Woo remains a candidate for ISO’s top job. She will visit in May, leading the orchestra in the final program of the season. Should any candidate drop out of the search process, Guillén would become eligible for the job.

A man with a big smile outstretches his arms, violin and bow in his left hand.
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Illinois Symphony
ISO Concertmaster Roy Meyer will appear as a soloist on "Sizzling Strings," playing Mozart's "Violin Concerto, No. 4."

ISO concertmaster Roy Meyer swaps in the principal violin’s chair to appear as Saturday’s soloist playing Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 4.” By age 19, Mozart had published five violin concertos and never wrote another. Meyer said the third, fourth and fifth are particularly important pieces in the violin repertoire.

“Most orchestras require you to audition with a Mozart violin concerto,” he said.

The fourth has been Meyer’s audition piece for at least 15 years.

“It’s really an honor to get to play it,” he said.

Also a violinist, Guillén said the second movement in particular contains some of Mozart’s most beautiful melodies.

“The violin is playing this gorgeous melody that traverses different strings while the rest of the orchestra is doing this very subtle accompaniment,” he said, making a chef’s kiss. “It’s just as good as it gets.”

Two shorter works bookmark the Mozart: Beethoven’s uncommonly rich “Gross Fuge,” and “Entr’acte,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning living American composer Caroline Shaw. The concert, curated by Woo, is presented without an intermission and brief pauses.

“I think [Woo] did a wonderful job choosing these three pieces,” Guillén said. “While Beethoven was writing music this day was ahead of its time, it defies categorization. It’s timeless.”

Similarly, Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” composed in 2011 for string quartet, is ambiguous about time period and aesthetic. Shaw references Hadyn, oscillating between antiqued classical progressions before disassociating into a sonic playground of dissonant chords, scratches and pizzicato.

“The pitting of all these pieces against each other works very well,” Guillén said. “It gives us different glimpses into both the lives of each composer and what was happening at the time of each composition.”

“Sizzling Strings” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at Second Presbyterian Church, 404 N. Prairie St., Bloomington. Tickets are $29 at ilsymphony.org.

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