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Alternate Alejandro Gómez Guillén vies for Illinois Symphony directorship with season-ending 'Opposites Attract'

A man in a suit coat and white shirt with open collar leans against a marble banister overlooking a bustling, opulent train station.
Illinois Symphony
Omaha Symphony Assistant Conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén is an alternate in the Illinois Symphony's music director search. He replaces finalist Naomi Woo.

The last of four music director candidates takes the podium May 4 for Illinois Symphony Orchestra's season closer. In place of a planned appearance from finalist Naomi Woo, alternate Alejandro Gómez Guillén returns to vie for ISO’s top artistic job.

Guillén replaces Woo, who withdrew her candidacy to focus on other opportunities. He subbed in for what was scheduled to be Woo’s first program last winter.

“We tell stories about these sorts of things happening in the artistic world, but they almost don’t happen,” said Guillén, who will complete the full interview process throughout next week. He arrives in Central Illinois on Sunday.

“I’m a good colleague of Naomi’s and I’m wishing her the best—she’s a fantastic musician and conductor,” Guillén said. “I’m excited for her and at the same time, of course, I’m also grateful.”

In addition to the swift timeline of his candidacy, Guillén won’t get the chance to demonstrate his programming skills, selecting just one of the four pieces on a program titled Opposites Attract.

“It’s still an opportunity to share four very important pieces of music that bear reinterpretation, even though two of them are so well known,” he said.

Joyce Yang is the guest soloist, playing Edvard Grieg's piano concerto. Works by Paul Hindemith, Lili Boulanger and Grażyna Bacewicz complete the program. The latter is Guillen’s pick, replacing Kaija Saariaho’s Light and Matter.

“The parts are rented, the soloist is engaged, the musicians are hired—this is very much a real-world situation in which you step into a preexisting model,” Guillén said.

With Hindemith’s Symphony Metamorphosis and the Grieg as non-negotiables, Guillen opted for pragmatism, swapping the Saariaho for a work he’s a little more familiar with. But he wouldn’t compromise on presenting two female composers—a rarity for classical music billing.

“The parameters were, OK, I need to find another piece written by a woman, ideally also European, of the same time period, that also has the same instrumentation and is also under 10 minutes—go!”

Bacewicz’s feverish Overture opens the program, penned the same year as the Hindemith and striking a stark contrast of works coming out of Europe during World War II.

“We have this incredible composer who was very well regarded in her time,” Guillén said. “To me, it was important to open the program with a piece with the most kinetic energy. I think that’s what I love most about that particular piece. It’s a study in motion and energy. You don’t quite know what hits you until it’s over.”

Boulanger’s 1918 D’un Soir Triste [Of a Sad Evening] is, in some ways, the opposite of the Bacewicz, a melancholic, impressionistic portrait—and the last work Boulanger completed before her death at age 24.

“It’s in that sweet spot, opening the second half [of the program],” Guillén said. “I think, in a way, it’s my favorite part of a concert. You’ve already gotten people for the first half. They’ve clearly chosen to stay; they’ve taken a little break; they’re excited to take it all in and we can go to a deeper place.”

That deeper place isn’t exactly “sad,” despite the title.

“It’s the subject matter—conversations with our mortality. It’s so deep. It’s so profound,” Guillén said. “I’m excited about that aspect of it."

Guillén is assistant conductor of the Omaha Symphony and music director of Denver's Sphere Ensemble—positions he intends to maintain if selected for the job.

“Anything that I say I’m able to do, I commit to fully. I’m present and I’m on the ground doing whatever needs to be done to make it successful,” he said. “That’s the short version. It’s a collaboration; it’s a conversation. Let’s arrive at a situation where we can be mutually happy.

Alejandro Gómez Guillén leads the Illinois Symphony in Opposites Attract Saturday, May 4, at the Center for Performing Arts at Illinois State University. Tickets are $21-$63 at 309-438-2535 and ilsymphony.org.

The new ISO music director and 2024-25 season are due to be announced this summer.

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