ESO's Lonis ready to return to real passion: teaching

Trained as a musician and educator, Dale J. Lonis has enjoyed his role as orchestra administrator the last four years with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and prior to that as head of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in Canada.

But Lonis has decided to return to his real passion, teaching young people the joy of music through work as a conductor, educator and clinician with youth orchestras and bands throughout the world. So last week he announced he is leaving as chief executive officer of the ESO in June after guiding the orchestra through the recession in recent years and several changes within the group's administration, including the ongoing search for a new music director.

“I've enjoyed my work here, but I've had more and more opportunities coming my way again, to working full-time with young people as a conductor and educator,” Lonis said. “I stopped doing that after I had cancer, and I usually had 18 months ahead of time in the hopper for work coming up. Then, I was out for two years for cancer treatments and so forth — actually, this month marks my fifth year clear — so that also gives me a lot of energy to go back to doing what I really love to do most.

“I like working in administration, but my greatest love is teaching and conducting, and if I want to move back into that, I have to have some time to plan for the future. I couldn't in good conscience take this conducting work and maintain my full-time position as CEO.”

Lonis and the ESO's board have worked out a scenario that will allow him to remain as a consultant during the music director search, which began following Robert Hanson's retirement last June. Guest conductors throughout this season and in 2012-13 are vying for the position. Included on the list is Tania Miller, here this weekend to conduct the orchestra's March Classics Series concerts at the Hemmens Cultural Center. Lonis says he hopes the new music director will be named in May 2013.

“A lot of what I'll be doing in the months ahead is to help the orchestra shape the 2013-14 season, because right now we don't have the usual input of a music director,” Lonis said. “I plan to avoid out-of-town conflicts with our concerts next season as we continue to evaluate our guest conductors.”

Lonis puts to rest any ideas his resignation indicates a perceived instability within the ESO hierarchy. “We have strong leadership. Our board, under chairman Jerry Cain, has really stepped up, and our staff is so strong, and I feel that this combination puts the organization in good stead,” he said. “I feel good about what we have accomplished and that we have a really strong organization in place. I didn't feel we were there six months ago, or even three months ago, and now I feel everything is OK.”

Talk of his replacement is premature, according to Lonis, mainly because of the ongoing music director search.

“The board is still talking about what they want to do concerning my successor,” Lonis said. “That's why I'm willing to stay on and help do the things required to move the orchestra forward. But whether we're going to have an interim general manager or CEO, we'll see how that plays out in the next few months. The actual title can be different. Whether it's CEO, executive director or general manager, it just depends. There's no universal title within the industry, depending on the needs of a particular organization. I don't think Jerry and the board want to have a national search for a new CEO right away, rather to hold off for a while. But the word will get out that there's a position open here.”

When he left Winnipeg for Elgin in 2008, Lonis and his family were returning to his native Fox Valley, and they intend to remain residents of Elgin. A graduate of West Aurora High School, he earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees in music education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's in conducting from Northwestern University. While at Northwestern in the 1980s, he worked in collaboration with legendary band director John P. Paynter.

“It has been a great homecoming, and we haven't regretted a minute of that,” Lonis said. “But at the same time, I started getting more and more of these opportunities internationally, especially after people realized I was not ill anymore. So I just had to make some career decisions.”

Among his many teaching credits, Lonis is founder and artistic director at Canadian Wind Conductors Development Program, and he served as Dean and Professor of Conducting in the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba.

“I just spent a week back in Winnipeg working with young bands and their teachers, and every moment of it was so rewarding and uplifting, and I really felt like I was doing something very important … inspiring kids to love music,” Lonis said. “That's really what I want to be doing.”

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