Music director Alastair Willis offers 'Paris Impressions' with South Bend Symphony concert

·4 min read
Alastair Willis is the music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
Alastair Willis is the music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to his high level of musical credentials, South Bend Symphony Orchestra music director Alastair Willis has a deep theatrical background as well.

This flair for theater permeates his "Alastair Presents" series. On May 21 at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, he unveils the third installment of his "Alastair Presents" concerts, this time with the theme "Paris Impressions."

He will conduct the SBSO as usual, but Willis also will serve as narrator. He takes the role of Jean-Luc Baton, a fictional conductor of the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. In this guise, Willis will describe and illustrate the many exciting innovations that music in Paris experienced at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

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Aaron Nichols, executive director of South Bend Civic Theatre, will assist Willis with the acting duties on stage, but Willis has a lot of ground to cover, so he is forced to break with a tradition in SBSO Masterworks concerts. Those programs generally include works performed in their entirety, but Willis will use excerpts for many of the works in "Paris Impressions." Otherwise, the concert would go on for several hours.

"The idea is to paint a broader picture of that era and to inspire the audience to go home and listen to the entire pieces, if they're so moved," Willis says. "Everything I talk about in the show is factual, but it's framed with me saying, 'I was there.' There's a little bit of poetic license, but the stories are all true."

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The first musical example comes in the form of a movement from César Franck's Symphony in D minor, which premiered in 1889. The Franck style shows how far French music had come up to that point, but the excitement and innovation really kick in with the second piece in the concert, Claude Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune." It's a composition that has been widely regarded as a signal event in the history of contemporary music, pointing the way forward in revolutionary ways.

This part of "Paris Impressions" shines a light into the critical involvement of someone who was neither a composer nor even a Frenchman: Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. Willis will lead the SBSO in excerpts from the three iconic ballets that Igor Stravinsky scored under commission of Diaghilev: "Firebird," "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring."

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Willis places World War I as the show's halfway point.

"The first half ends in darkness, with music from 'The Rite of Spring.' There's a prophecy of war, with rhythms of such angularity and a barbarous sound," Willis says. "The second half, set after World War I, asks, 'How did Paris recover? How did the arts lead the way in that recovery?'"

The music in the second half is much more light-hearted, punctuated by selections from Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, Jacques Offenbach and Francis Poulenc.

Shown in January 2018, South Bend Civic Theatre Executive Director Aaron Nichols serves as the guest actor for the South Bend Symphony Orchestra's "Alastair Presents: Paris Impressions" concert on May 21, 2022, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
Shown in January 2018, South Bend Civic Theatre Executive Director Aaron Nichols serves as the guest actor for the South Bend Symphony Orchestra's "Alastair Presents: Paris Impressions" concert on May 21, 2022, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.

There's even a song from "Gigi," the hit musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Technically, it's anachronistic, because Lerner and Loewe wrote their musical in 1958, but they used Colette's novella of the same name as their source. Colette's story was set in precisely the period Willis discusses in "Paris Impressions."

"Of course, 'Gigi' was written many years later, but it describes this golden era — 'la belle époque' — so well," hes says.

The program ends with a complete performance of Maurice Ravel's "La Valse."

"Diaghilev commissioned it, but he never produced it. He said it was a masterpiece, but it wasn't suitable for his dances. He just couldn't choreograph it," Willis says. "It ended their relationship. They never collaborated again. When Diaghilev told him it wasn't suitable, Ravel didn't say anything. What a gentleman! They never spoke again, but there was no argument, no fisticuffs, no pistols at dawn."

Shown in this file photo, Maestro Alastair Willis leads the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in a performance at the Morris Performing Arts Center, where the SBSO performs again May 21.
Shown in this file photo, Maestro Alastair Willis leads the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in a performance at the Morris Performing Arts Center, where the SBSO performs again May 21.

In concert

Who: The South Bend Symphony Orchestra performs "Alastair Presents: Paris Impressions"

When: 7:30 p.m. May 21

Where: Morris Performing Arts Center, 211 N. Michigan St., South Bend

Cost: $74-$10

For more information: Call 574-235-9190 or visit morriscenter.org

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend Symphony, Alastair Willis explore French music