Clef Notes

Meet Matthew Sheppard, Danville Symphony Orchestra’s Next MD


Danville Symphony Orchestra's new music director, Matthew Sheppard

After a year-long search process, the Danville Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has just announced its next music director. Conductor Matthew Sheppard was selected from over 60 highly qualified applicants to lead the local professional orchestra. He takes over for Jeremy Swerling, who held the position for 27 years before retiring in 2023. The DSO selected two finalists to conduct two concerts each this past season and announced its selection of Matthew Sheppard on June 1 at a “Meet the Maestro” gala.

“I am so thrilled to welcome Maestro Sheppard into the DSO family,” DSO executive director Kay Welch said in a statement. “We took every consideration to heart, and I know that Matthew is ready to take this organization head on. His energy and love for his craft are boundless.”

Sheppard adds the DSO directorship to an impressive roster of other conducting positions in the Chicago area. He is artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra (EYSO) and the Hyde Park Youth Symphony, education conductor of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra and the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company of Chicago. 

He has guest conducted numerous ensembles across North and South America, including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay, Chicago Philharmonic, Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra, and Blue Lake International Youth Symphony. In 2022–23, he was also guest resident conductor at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, where he conducted the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra. 

At the EYSO, he leads a team of dedicated teachers in providing comprehensive music education to over 400 students and families each year. In recognition of his excellence as an educator, the Illinois Council of Orchestras named him Conductor of the Year in 2022 and the EYSO the Youth Orchestra of the Year in 2021. He is also committed to continuing education for music teachers, serving as president of the Illinois Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance Committee.

So, what inspired Sheppard to add the DSO to his already busy schedule? “I actually did my doctoral work at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana [under Donald Schleicher] and lived there for about three years,” Sheppard said. “My wife and I now live about an hour and 45 minutes north of Danville, and we’ve both retained our ties to the area while we continue to work up in the Chicago area. My wife is the concertmaster for the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra as well. We both really like the area and the people, so when I spotted that the DSO was looking for a new music director, I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”

After the initial application process, Sheppard was asked to conduct two of the four concerts last season and an educational concert for area students. Although outgoing music director Jeremy Swirling had created the basic outline of the season and solidified the first two concerts in October and December, some of the programming was up to the candidates, particularly in the second half of the season. 

“For the final concerts of the year, the guest soloists were in place and maybe one other big piece,” Sheppard explained, “but then each one of us had an opportunity to program at least one or two pieces within that. I also was able to program the entire education concert, which was lots of fun.”

The education concert, titled Storytellers of the Symphony, was designed to get students listening to music in a new way that engages their creativity. “Just like when you’re reading a book, you’re not only thinking about the words on the page—you have these visions that come to mind,” Sheppard explained. “Well, it’s the same with music. And for young audiences, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve thought of it that way.”

Sheppard began the concert with music from Star Wars because, he said, “what can more immediately call a story to mind than Star Wars? Then, we use that as a pivot point into Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The opening fanfare is so similar to the opening of Star Wars in so many ways, and then we just take a little moment to unpack that and tease apart some of the brilliant, evocative storytelling that Tchaikovsky utilized.” Also on the program were two different kinds of operatic storytelling—the intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide—followed by a jazzy movement from William Grant Still’s “Autochthonous” Symphony No. 4. 

Sheppard credits the Danville School District for helping support this program both financially and by busing in students of all ages from other schools within the district and even from further afield. Across the two concerts that day at Danville High School’s Dick Van Dyke Auditorium, Sheppard estimates they played to around 1,000 students. He said the kids didn’t just listen to the music but engaged with the concert fully by asking and answering questions and sharing with their neighbors what they heard. 

The DSO has long made education part of its core mission, and as a passionate and experienced educator, Sheppard is primed to expand these initiatives. “Certainly, some of the most impactful work that we do is working with these young students and at least opening the door a little bit to this entire wonderful, fabulous world of classical orchestral music,” he said.

Sheppard credits his own dedicated teachers growing up for spurring his interest in music. He began studying piano in second grade, then moved on to violin, and even took up the tuba and sousaphone in high school. This background gave him a holistic view of the orchestra. Violinists often play the melody—or at least play throughout most of the piece—whereas tuba players spend much of their time listening from the back of the orchestra. “The two informed each other in a really neat way,” he recalled. “That’s when my interest in being a musician and being a music educator really came out.”

Sheppard attended Penn State University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and violin performance. During a mandatory conducting class his junior year, he discovered his passions for education and performance intersected on the podium. “No matter what group you’re working with, there’s a little bit of both,” he said. When conducting younger players, he spends more time teaching the mechanics of playing, whereas with professional groups, he focuses on communicating his interpretation and understanding of the music. “It’s my role in this compressed time to teach that interpretation, to build that interpretation, and similarly to teach the community.” 

In addition to the education concert, Sheppard conducted last season’s Christmas pops concert—Nothin’ but the Blues, featuring vocalist Shayne Steele—and the season closer, Beatles & Bach, featuring trumpet soloist Brandon Ridenour. When asked whether his approach to programming would continue to feature a mix of pops and standard classical repertoire, he said it would.

“One of the challenges, of course, is that when you have a small enough season, you only have so many concerts,” he explained. “One of our goals is to increase the amount of touch time that the Danville Symphony Orchestra has with the community, because we think we’ve got a good thing going on, and we want to do more of it. Being able to do more of it means not necessarily bifurcating ourselves and saying, well, this is the pops concert, this is the classics concert . . . It used to very much be that the pops concerts were there to subsidize the classical concerts, and that actually doesn’t work anymore in most orchestras. So, we’re trying to find new ways [to integrate the two].”

This approach feeds into Sheppard’s long-term vision for the DSO. “One of the biggest goals that I have is making the Danville Symphony a regular part of the community in Danville and in central Illinois and Indiana as well,” he said. He hopes to make the DSO more visible by having some sort of performance once a month instead of quarterly, whether it’s a full orchestral performance of masterworks, a pops concert, a side-by-side with the Danville High School Orchestra, or a chamber concert featuring DSO members. By having more options throughout the year, Sheppard hopes people will make the symphony a regular part of their calendars. 

Although the DSO has not yet announced its 2024–25 season, Sheppard gave us a teaser. “What I can say one is that we have a really, really exciting season ahead,” he said. “I’m personally over the moon about it.” One concert he was able to talk about will be on the theme of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. “It’s using that sort of ancient elemental construction of the universe as our grounding point for a journey through pieces that touch on each one of these different ideas,” he explained. Earth will be represented by a suite by Virgil Thomson called The Plow that Broke the Plains from a documentary about the Dust Bowl. Fire will, of course, come in the form of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. We will have to wait and see about the other two elements. 

A couple of pops concerts are also slated, including the annual Christmas concert and potentially a Halloween concert in partnership with the Danville High School Orchestra. Stay tuned for the full season announcement later this summer. 


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

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Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.