Rockford Symphony Orchestra: Yaniv Attar Takes up the Baton as New Maestro

After reviewing 200 applicants and nine finalists, RSO finally has a new maestro, one who brings a wealth of experience and an enthusiasm for reaching new heights.

The Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s (RSO) long search for a new music director is over. After three years of sifting through more than 200 applications, hosting nine original concerts conducted by finalists, and with an unexpected global pandemic thrown in for good (or bad) measure, Yaniv Attar is set to take the podium for his first concert this fall.

“I could not be more pleased with our selection,” says Julie Thomas, RSO’s executive director. “Yaniv brings an exceptional level of artistry along with a great sense of humor and approachability.”

For Attar, the position represents an exciting new chapter in his career, one that has been a long time in coming. As the first of RSO’s finalists to lead a concert, he had to wait almost a year to be chosen.

“It’s like speed dating in slow motion,” he says. “It wasn’t about who is the best conductor. It’s about chemistry. Now that the dust has settled, I’m excited to get to work.”

Attar is only the fifth music director of the RSO, which was founded in 1934. He replaces longtime maestro Steven Larson, who retired at the end of the 2020-21 season after serving as music director for more than 30 years.

“It’s always thrilling when you join an orchestra that has a rich history like the RSO,” says Attar. “When I applied for the job, I knew that it meant leading one of Rockford’s most important cultural ambassadors. It’s exciting to be a part of its 90-year history.”

Attar brings with him a history of his own as an accomplished musician and an award-winning and respected conductor.

A native of Israel, he has a long list of accolades, including first-prize winner of the Duna Szimfonikus Conducting Competition Budapest, multiple Sir Georg Solti Foundation Awards, and the 2009 Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Award.

He also brings a wealth of experience, having worked with the Cincinnati Symphony, Dohnanyi Orchestra Budapest, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and a long list of other notable ensembles.

In addition to directing RSO, Attar plans to continue serving as music director of the Bellingham Symphony and an artistic partner with the Northwest Sinfonietta, both in Washington State where he resides with his wife and children. He is also wrapping up his final season with the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra, where he was music director for eight years. Now that he has signed on the dotted line for RSO, he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and start making music on Main Street.

“The RSO has a wonderful artistic advisory committee,” says Attar. “The first thing I got to do was sit down with them and do my favorite part of the job, which is planning the upcoming season.”
Attar plans to make his debut with the orchestra Sept. 9 at the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford. For Attar, that first concert cannot come soon enough.

“It’s tough,” he laughs. “They’re keeping me waiting, but it’s going to be so worth it.”

Attar plans for his first concert to begin with a thunderous introduction through “Frenergy,” a modern orchestral piece by Canadian composer John Estacio. The orchestra then moves in a more traditional direction with a concerto by Beethoven and Symphony No. 1, “Titan,” by Gustav Mahler. It’s indicative of what Attar hopes to bring as RSO’s music director, blending the classical with the contemporary.

“Every concert this season is going to be something special,” he says. “What I try to do, when I approach a concert, is give the audience something tried and true that I know they love while, at the same time, offering a new discovery, something unique that they haven’t heard before.”

For Attar, this balance of old and new is one of the more rewarding aspects of being a music director. He says one of his great joys is offering audiences music they didn’t know they wanted to hear.

“I feel like I’m very good at providing fantastic unknown works to audiences,” he says. “People are always surprised that they love it so much and they suddenly become curious and want to hear more.”

With that being said, Attar recognizes it’s a good idea to stay rooted in giving the audience what they know and expect. Being out of the box can be a good thing, but he also believes audiences don’t want to venture too far from their comfort zone during every performance.

“Our orchestra still has an obligation to our patrons,” he says. “People come to see us because they want to enjoy a concert and, as the music director, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the concert is a success.”

This theme of musical discovery stretches back to Attar’s childhood in Israel.

“When I was little, my mom bought me a guitar,” he recalls. “It was the only instrument she could afford at the time, but she wanted me to have music in my life.”

When Attar went to his first lesson, he walked in on his teacher playing a piece by Bach. He was immediately transfixed.

“I told him, ‘I want to learn that,’” he says. “It was my first lesson. I hadn’t even learned how to hold my instrument, but I didn’t care. I was on a mission.”

That sense of purpose served him well as a classical guitar player. He went on to become the first guitarist to win the Aviv Competition Prize in Israel, as well as the Concerto Composition at The Julliard School. It was his first introduction to classical music, and it led to a passion for being part of an orchestra.

“Guitars are not known for being featured in orchestras,” he says. “I decided that the only way to be part of this amazing music making was to conduct. I don’t think I’d be doing this if I had learned an orchestral instrument.”

Fortunately, the fates decided to place Attar in front of, instead of in, the orchestra. From his place on the podium, he brings all of the various musical elements together to form a cohesive whole.

“The biggest part for me, as a conductor, is the studying I do at home,” he explains. “I’m the only one with the orchestral score. I see what every instrument plays. The musicians only see their own parts.”

Attar likens his role as a conductor to taking apart a piece of machinery and examining each component.

“I always think to myself, ‘Who needs me the most and where?” he says. “’Which section do I need to give my attention to?’ Then, little by little, I put it all back together.”

While Attar prepares for his debut as RSO’s new music director, the orchestra has several concerts that will be led by guest conductors. Attar is hopeful audiences won’t wait for his arrival to buy a ticket and experience the exquisite artistry the orchestra has to offer.

“There’s nothing like experiencing live music, especially in a beautiful hall like the Coronado,” he says. “You’ve got this incredible band in your backyard. To be sitting in an audience, completely silent, listening to the orchestra play beautiful music…there’s nothing like it.”