The festival, the result of an extensive year-long planning process by a committee of Willmar community leaders and orchestra staff, is part of the multi-year Common Chords project, which establishes partnerships between the orchestra and communities outside the Twin Cities area, each culminating in its own unique festival week.
Willmar, Minn., is the second city to host Common Chords; the inaugural festival was in October 2011 in Grand Rapids, Minn.
"Our hope would be that this week in Willmar really reflects the community and the hopes and the expectations of the people who have been working on this in your community - the steering committee - for well over a year,'' said Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra project manager for the Willmar Common Chords partnership.
"My hope would be that the people in Willmar across the entire community would have an opportunity to interact with musicians, staff and conductors in unexpected ways, perhaps see us in a light that they hadn't before and allow us to enter the community and participate in a way that, of course, we haven't had the opportunity to do, either,'' said Willis.
The orchestra will be led during two concerts by Sarah Hicks, principal pops conducto. Hicks was orchestra conductor and spent the entire week in Grand Rapids, and she plans to spend the week in Willmar as well.
In an interview, Hicks said the reception in Grand Rapids was incredible. She said people were cheering and on their feet during the concerts. More importantly, orchestra members and staff got to know the community through other activities such as playing in the schools, meeting the city council and attending an Ojibwa pow-wow.
"Being part of the community and interacting on so many levels and then having everything come together at the end and seeing all the now-familiar faces at the concert: that was really special. But I think it was a wonderful experience for the orchestra and the community,'' she recalled.
Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson said Common Chords can be a real exchange of people and ideas that builds new and unexpected connections through music.
Hicks said music is really an international language that unifies people.
"It's a way to connect with people in a way that I think we don't necessarily think of all the time and that becomes a huge commonality in our love for music or the way we react to it creates the ties that bind so that we feel those connections with each other,'' Hicks said.
"In a very disconnected world where a lot of our communication is via email or phone, we have little face-to-face. Live music forces that face-to-face and I think that's an important part of being human and having those human experiences and interactions with each, and that's what music can do. I think it's a really powerful tool to connect us to each other,'' she said.
A fundamental component of the program is to make sure the experience is tailored specifically to the community. The program takes into consideration what people might want to hear, and that includes local talent.
Performing as soloist during the 7:30 p.m. concert on May 26, featuring Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs," will be baritone Andrew Wilkowske, a Willmar Senior High School graduate.
"We try to keep the local touch,'' said Hicks. "We definitely think about what's going to resonate with our audience. In this case, we really did want to use someone from Willmar and to make that connection.''
A festival highlight will be multiple visits to elementary and high schools. Hicks said the kids are always a little bit "gun-shy'' when orchestra members get there and they don't know how to react.
"But then they sit next to each other and they realize, oh, this is really cool,'' said Hicks. "I think it's important for the orchestra members because it reminds them of the passion that young people can have for what they do.''
Also, orchestra members will attend coaching sessions with the Willmar Area Symphony Orchestra. Hicks praised community musicians who work eight hours a day and then rehearse in a nonprofessional orchestra.
"You have to have a real passion to work a full day and then come and rehearse that hard. It reminds our professional players who do this as their work that there are people out there who love this so much that they'll do it outside along with their normal lives,'' said Hicks.
Hicks hopes community members will see the orchestra as a group of musicians who really want to share what they do with other people.
"I hope at the end of the week when people look at the orchestra on stage, they're not seeing just a blank group of people but individual faces that they've been able to chat with and interact with,'' she said.
"And I think that makes the music-making more personal and that you can have a wonderful time in an orchestra concert and feel that connection with everyone on stage. That's the whole fun of it. I hope everyone feels that at the end.''