Getting Personal: Stephen Alltop


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Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 54-year-old Wilmette resident STEPHEN ALLTOP, a professor of music at Northwestern University and the music director/conductor of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles, chats with The News-Gazette's MELISSA MERLI.

What interests you the most right now?

Communicating with people about great music. Sharing the wonderful and amazing world of great composers and the music they create.

Tell us something few people know about you?

I love sports and exercise. In the past 14 years, I've played more than 2,000 games in the Evanston Squash League and run 10 marathons and 17 half-marathons. As a kid, I played all the sports and was a pitcher on my varsity baseball team in high school. I wish I could still play baseball.

What do you think of the C-U Symphony and how does it stack up against other orchestras you've conducted?

Orchestras exist in different contexts. The C-U Symphony is a professional orchestra in-residence in a superb performing arts center at a great university, so the orchestra contains community, faculty and student musicians. While the orchestra performs at a very high level, everything we do is enhanced tremendously by the stellar acoustics of the Foellinger Great Hall at the Krannert Center. We are so fortunate to perform there.

What other ensembles do you conduct besides the C-U Symphony?

I am music director and conductor of the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra (21st season) and of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago (20th season); music director of the Green Lake Choral Institute (12th season); and teach full-time at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, where I also serve as director of music at the Alice Millar Chapel. At Northwestern, I conduct the Baroque Music Ensemble and the Alice Millar Chapel Choir.

Did you enjoy playing the Wurlitzer organ at the Virginia Theatre? What did you think of it?

The Wurlitzer at the Virginia is a gem. It has been beautifully cared for, and the staff there is really gracious. I am a classical organist rather than a theater organist, but I still had a blast playing with all the "toys."

What do you enjoy most about being an orchestra conductor?

The opportunity to make the world's greatest music with dedicated musicians who are also wonderful people. I also do a great deal of public speaking about music, which I very much enjoy. I can truly say I love what I do.

How often do you perform as a musician (not conductor) and at what kind of places and on what instruments?

I perform on harpsichord, organ and piano on a weekly basis. In December, January and February this season, I'm playing five different concertos and do many recitals each year, often with my wife, soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg. I also serve as principal organist and harpsichord for Music of the Baroque in Chicago.

How do you come up with concert programs?

Programming is a passion of mine — it was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Putting concert programs together is a lot like planning a wonderful meal: Mixing satisfying contrasts with ingredients of high quality, all tied together by overarching themes. In the course of a season, I try to include pinnacles of the repertoire alongside new delights. I believe musicians have a commitment to the composers and music of their own time, so our seasons always include a mix of new music and established masterpieces.

Who is your favorite composer to conduct, or what composer to you feel the most affinity for?

I perform a great deal of music by Bach and Handel and feel a great affinity for them. I have always been a musically greedy person in the sense that I enjoy music of all ages, including our own, and do a tremendous amount of contemporary music. I'm happy to say my favorite composer is truly the one I'm conducting at the moment.

What was it like conducting at Carnegie Hall?

I enjoyed the chance to conduct the music of Eric Whitacre at Carnegie Hall in 2007. It was especially fun to be in the dressing rooms and see framed letters from many famous musicians and composers like Camille-Saint Sans.

How did you get into music in the first place?

Growing up in Arizona, our next-door neighbor had a spinet piano. Often, when my Mom and my neighbor talked, I'd go over and play the keys, which I remember were above my head. My parents got me a Magnus Chord Organ, essentially an accordion laid on its side, and I learned to play by ear. I started lessons on the organ at age 7, then the saxophone a year or so later.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

Musicians tend to be up late with evening rehearsals. I always need time to unwind, so it's rare to get to sleep before midnight during the season. Now that both my daughters are in college, I often get to sleep until 8 a.m. or after. I'm married to a world-champion sleeper, so that has a very positive influence on me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

In 2014, I coordinated and hosted a live performance series for WFMT Chicago of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, followed in 2015 by a festival of Bach's complete keyboard works. The two series involved 134 performers and 42 separate recitals and mini-recitals. I played about three and a half of the 37 hours of music. That was a life-changing experience.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring.

Do you have a guilty pleasure, and if so, what is it?

Where to start? When my wife goes out of town to perform, I eat chicken wings.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I love historical fiction and am currently reading (listening) to a book by Robert Harris on the Dreyfus Affair. My favorite book is "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick — the book is 10 times better than the movie of the same name.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

New Zealand, because, as anybody who has watched "Lord of the Rings" knows, it's just amazing.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

We have two cats who are sisters, Teddy (short hair) and Sylvester (long hair), so it would be only politically correct for me to say I love both equally. However, Sylvester has always seemed to thrive on neglect and therefore is hopelessly devoted to me. She follows me everywhere and sleeps on my feet. She also possesses the most formidable self-esteem of any creature I have ever seen and seemingly cannot conceive of a situation in which she would not be wanted, so I can't help but adore her.

What's your favorite sports team?

The Los Angeles Dodgers followed by the Phoenix Suns. My loyalties will never change, but it has been easier to be a Dodger fan recently than a Suns fan.

What would you order for your last meal?

Something very filling.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

A "Five Tool" shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

I very much enjoy the work of the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner. He combines exciting musicianship and scholarship, which I have always found to be a great model. I also like the music and work of Esa-Pekka Salonen. My guilty pleasure, however, is Billy Joel — he is also a great musician.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Laughing with my wife, Josefien, which we do pretty much every day.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

Conan O'Brien and Jerry Seinfeld because they are totally hilarious, and Tom Hanks, whom I respect greatly and who also has a wonderful sense of humor. I would serve them my stuffed mushrooms and polenta and a good Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. What a blast that would be.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

Abraham Lincoln, an extraordinary leader and thinker. It was providential he led our country when it needed him most.

What's your best piece of advice?

Do what you love, and the money will follow.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

My first job was organist at Albright United Methodist Church in Phoenix at age 15. I think I was paid $50 a service.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

I started college as a double major in music and business — lots of my family were in business and no one was in music. However, all I wanted to do was study, practice and make music, so after about a month, I told my parents I was dropping the business part. Never looked back. Ironically, I now do presentations on leadership each year at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern, so I found my way back to business, but on musical terms.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

I wish there was a second me that was not so heavily scheduled that could spend hours each day preparing healthy meals and exercising and looking like an Adonis.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

Usually with direct communication if I have any ability to influence the situation, and a good vigorous run or a nice Kentucky bourbon if I don't.

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