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Michael Zellgert of St. Cloud will conduct Sunday afternoon’s concert of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra. Theme of the concert, and the 2013-14 season, is “Fanfares, Themes and Variations.” (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

‘Themes and Variations’ : Theme of Willmar, Minn., Orchestra concert and its entire season

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The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has only had four full-time directors since its inception in 1957.

This year, four different conductors will each direct the ensemble for one rehearsal period and a concert.

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Last spring, the orchestra’s conductor of 10 years, Steven Eckblad of St. Cloud, announced that he would not return to conduct for an 11th season. His retirement left the orchestra board to find someone new.

Instead of hiring a permanent director right away, the board decided to narrow the field to three candidates, and then have each of them rehearse with the orchestra and conduct one concert for the 2013-14 year. Eckblad will also return to conduct the orchestra’s holiday concert, featuring Handel’s “Messiah.”

The requirements for the new conductor were simple, according to Marie Nelson, principal cellist and secretary of the orchestra board: “They had to have experience conducting, be into classical music, and be willing to drive to Willmar for rehearsals,” she said.

Unfortunately, the board could not find anyone from the Willmar area to take over as director, said Bob Whitney, orchestra board president.

“Myself and others asked several local directors,” Whitney said. “I wanted to find a local director, because we have very talented directors in this community. I was disappointed that we didn’t get any candidates from here.”

Instead, the three candidates come from St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. Michael Zellgert, of St. Cloud, and Sergey Bogza and Stephen Ramsey, both from the Twin Cities, will each try their hand at directing the Willmar orchestra this year.

Zellgert has been rehearsing with the orchestra since the beginning of its season in September. He will be the conductor for the orchestra’s Sunday concert, “Fanfares, Themes and Variations.”

The theme of the concert could also describe the orchestra’s whole season, Zellgert said.

“It is a celebration for a new beginning as the orchestra embarks to find a new conductor and vision,” Zellgert said.

In his brief time with the Willmar orchestra, Zellgert has been impressed by the quality of the players and their willingness to try new music.

“With any orchestra, it is a challenge shaping an orchestra’s vision of a certain piece under a limited timeline,” said Zellgert, a violinist who has been conducting for 15 years. “However, the (Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra) has been very receptive and sensitive to the demands of the music. I am pleased how the orchestra has stepped up not only to play the music on the stand, but also to make the music come alive.”

Bogza will conduct the orchestra’s February concert, a chamber orchestra concert featuring classical pieces, and Ramsey will conduct the final concert in May, featuring young artists from area schools.

Playing under new directors every few months might prove to be a challenge, but it can also grow the ensemble’s musicality and make everyone better players, Nelson said.

“It’s good for the players to learn how to respond to someone new,” Nelson said. “It makes it more interesting. Hopefully the audience will find it interesting, too.”

After each concert this year, the orchestra will ask the audience to fill out a brief survey on the concert. This feedback, along with feedback from the orchestra members, will help the board make its final decision on who will conduct the orchestra next year.

“We really feel that this whole process will benefit the orchestra,” Whitney said. “We anticipate that it will help encourage the orchestra to lift our musicianship to another level. We’re excited about it. At the end of the year, our fifth director will come out of this.”

If you go….

What: Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra concert, “Fanfares, Themes and Variations”

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: WEAC, 611 Fifth St. S.W., Willmar

Cost: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students ages 12 to 22; family packs (two adults and unlimited children) $25

What to expect: The orchestra will play a variety of pieces featuring different sections of the ensemble, including “The Fanfare for the Common Man” by Copland, “St. Paul Suite” by Holst, “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Brahms, and “Variations on a Shakers Melody” by Copland. Guest cello soloist Darin Anderson will also perform with the orchestra on “Variation on a Rococo Theme” by Tchaikovsky.

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Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.


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