Editor's note: The Illinois Symphony Orchestra's 2016-17 season will feature two performances apiece for each of the four candidates vying for post of ISO music director, vacated last season by Alastair Willis. Upon each candidate's first performance, GO! will offer a profile. First up: Vladimir Kulenovic.
BLOOMINGTON — Vladimir Kulenovic is a man of the music world in every way.
"I was born in Belgrade, Serbia, and have followed my childhood and lifelong passion for music," begins the 36-year-old conductor named the Chicago Tribune's 2015's Chicagoan of the Year in Classical Music.
Tracking that passion "is what led me to take advantage of moving to the United States for an education," and "it is the same passion that has led me to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, and I look forward to sharing it with the communities of Central Illinois."
His first chance at sharing the love comes at 7:30 p.m. Friday, raising the baton for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra's season opener in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (followed by a repeat Saturday night at the U of I at Springfield's Sangamon Auditorium).
Joining him will be guest artist, pianist Joyce Yang; the concert bill includes Shostakovich's "October: Symphonic Poem for Orchestra," Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances."
If we walk away with one impression of him, he says he hopes it can be summed up in a single word: "Honesty."
Kulenovic comes by his great passion naturally, and directly: His father is a composer and professor at the Boston Berklee School of Music; his mother, a piano professor. Vladimir and his two siblings were duly influenced.
In the early '90s, the family moved to the United States to escape persecution from the regime of dictator Slobodan Milosevic, whom Kulenovic's father had opposed. Kulenovic, who'd studied piano and violin, eventually pursued an education in conducting in the U.S.
Currently in his third season as music director of Chicago's North Shore Lake Forest Symphony Orchestra, Kulenovic has amassed a resume whose length belies his 36 years.
Prior to his Lake Forest post, he spent four seasons as associate conductor of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, where he logged an average of 100 performances annually.
His other posts have included staff conductor for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and English National Opera, as well as resident conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic.
Also in 2015, he was named the Solti Conducting Fellow, considered one of the most prestigious conducting honors in the United States.
"What I am most proud of (in Lake Forest) is the growth that has been catalyzed during this time," Kulenovic says. "Most palpably this growth is evident in the increase of subscriptions and donations, the expansion of our season offerings and our new healthcare and education outreach activities."
During his Belgrade tenure, "what I am especially proud of with the Belgrade Symphony Orchestra Philharmonic is the program I spearheaded on the territories of the war-torn former Yugoslavia, making the exchange between Belgrade, Slovenian and Croatia's Zagreb Philharmonic orchestras."
He adds, "it was us, the musicians, who made the first step after a 10-year bloody civil war, and we opened the door toward trade, tourism, other cultural exchange and even the governments themselves."
Of the Chicagoan of the Year honor accorded by Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein, "I honestly feel that every musician in the Lake Forest Symphony equally deserves that accolade, since we are an inseparable team that grows and makes music together."
His primary goals for the orchestra include "increasing the artistic excellence of the ISO's performances, expanding the outreach offerings, accelerating the organic growth of the budget and servicing the needs of our audiences through innovative ways of communicating and contributing through our performances."
Kulenovic wholly embraces the ISO's two-city coverage turf. "This challenge is our strongest asset, and I have had it in the previous two posts I was involved in."
So what is luring Kulenovic away from Chicago's scenic North Shore to landlocked Central Illinois?
"As a new Illinois resident passionate about increasing the quality of the cultural life of our home state, I'm interested in broadening my contribution in addition to the work I have done up north," he says.
"As the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham once said, 'make no little plans ... they have no magic to stir men's blood.' There is magic at the ISO, and we are ready to make the plans happen."