South Bend Symphony welcomes new Music Director

Sep 22, 2017


Alastair Willis conducts the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
Credit Peter Ringenberg

The South Bend Symphony Orchestra has been on the rebound since 2013. For the last two years they’ve been in the process of hiring a new music director. Alastair Willis will take to the podium for the first time on Saturday.

Willis’ hire is the most recent major leadership change for the orchestra. The other was the hire of a new executive director two years ago.

“It was literally the third day of my job here.” Executive director Agnieszka Rakhmatullaev said. Her first task in 2015 was finding a new music director. “I started on September 28, I think we held the first meeting on the Wednesday.”

Rakhmatullaev said there were 170 applicants which were whittled down to five finalists who came to South Bend for a week of meetings, rehearsals and an audition concert.

“Even for me a week is a long time.” Willis said the process was the most involved of any job audition he’s experienced. “Usually it’s a 20 minute interview and we’ll give you a call, you know, you’re here for the whole week doing all sorts of things.”

Rakhmatullaev said it was important to the orchestra to allow supporters from the community to have input in such a big decision. She said that’s been key to SBSO’s success.

“ We are only as good and as strong as those relationships that we build not only with just individual people but also out in the community with our community partners and I think that’s a huge portion of our success.”

She said as the organization grows they will develop a new strategic plan and solicit community involvement.

Community engagement in the orchestra has been a boon to its bottom line as well. The SBSO finished the last two years with what Board President Kyle Everett called a ‘healthy surplus.’


Alastair Willis, Agnieszka Rakhmatullaev, and Kyle Everett.

“I think that really comes back to efforts that we’ve put in in marketing and in widening our donor base and in really developing this development plan but ultimately I think it comes back to the quality of our product.”

Orchestras around the country have been doing better in recent years. A study from the League of American Orchestras shows municipal orchestras have grown in audience size and revenue.

However, overall orchestras are seeing modest increases in single ticket revenue, about 6 percent. The South Bend Symphony has seen a 95 percent increase in single ticket revenue between 2013 and 2017.

Ticket sales make up 20 percent of SBSO’s budget. The rest comes from donors and subscribers, which Everett said have grown as well.

“We’ve finished the last two fiscal years with huge surpluses. Our season attendance numbers have gone up. Our subscriptions and again our donations have gone up.”

The Symphony has also upped the number of free community performances. Rakhmatullaev said for the upcoming season there will be 20 paid performances and 54 free ones.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to bond with the community to go out there. A lot of the people that are participating in those performances cannot participate in our regular concerts. So it’s a wonderful thing to be able to bring live classical music and the joy out to them as a service to the community”

Willis said he’s looking forward to all the performances and to spending time in South Bend.

“I mean who wouldn’t want to be a part of an institution that has such big support? That is going forward? That has so much going for it and the future in bright and to be a part of creating that next vision, I mean this is… oh yeah and I love to conduct as well!”

Willis said he plans to move to South Bend soon, right now he’s commuting from his family’s home in Seattle.

“My job is just to do my job to give to the community, to give to the orchestra institution and we’ll just see what happens as a result of that because I’m getting a lot back too which is wonderful.” He has a four year contract with the symphony but said he’s not planning on moving on anytime soon.“The welcome that I’ve had here, the musicians, how they played last night. I mean who knows, it could be 48 years, who knows, who knows.”

This Saturday’s performance will open with Philip Rothman’s “Overture for Our City,” a piece Willis chose, followed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number One, “Titan.” The South Bend Symphony is joined in concert by Rachel Barton Pine on violin.

The performance starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend.