By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
For one inning circa 2006, during a Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver, Stephen Alltop sat behind a legend in the press box.
The music director of both the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra and Apollo Chorus of Chicago watched.
And … tingled.
The Dodgers’ longtime radio ace, Vin Scully, was doing an inimitable one-man show in a booth, using his mellifluous voice to provide efficient play-by-play and tell charming stories.
“Masterful,” Alltop, a Wilmette resident since 2016, says of the late broadcaster’s work behind the microphone. “I find inspiration in anybody who has an amazing work ethic.
“Today I find myself wanting to work harder than ever at the little things, because great music culminates only after hundreds of details are taken care of,” adds Alltop, an organist/harpsichordist/keyboard artist who now also serves as the music director of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and in two capacities at Northwestern University— senior lecturer (conducting and ensemble), Bienen School of Music, and director of music, Alice Millar Chapel.
A true-blue Dodgers fan since his days as a youngster in Arizona, Alltop is all about wielding either a conductor’s baton or a squash racket, rather than a baseball bat, these days. But the man keeps knocking it out of the park in his chosen field.
The Illinois Council of Orchestras named Alltop—who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2007, conducting the music of Eric Whitacre— the 2022 Conductor of the Year for his work with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.
He has helmed the Apollo Chorus of Chicago since 1997. Founded in 1872 and the city’s oldest musical organization, it has performed at Ravinia Festival with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and at Lollapalooza; made appearances with London Symphony Orchestra, Josh Groban, and Sarah Brightman; and enthralled viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The Apollo Chorus’s Hallelujah enlivened a Christmas Special of the Netflix Series Sense8.
Since 2014 Alltop has given presentations on conducting and leadership to MBA students and senior executives from around the world on behalf of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Each presentation includes a live ensemble and spotlights the dynamics of verbal and nonverbal communication.
“There are parallels between music and leadership, between being a conductor and being a CEO,” says Alltop, who studied business briefly at the University of Arizona before transferring to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he graduated with Highest Distinction in Organ Performance and later earned Master of Music degrees in Organ Performance & Literature and Choral Conducting.
“I often get the question, ‘Do those conductor gestures really work?’” he adds. “They do. A conductor’s gestures influence a performance as significantly as a business leader’s communication skills influence the work of a company’s employees. In music and in business, you have to have a plan, you have to facilitate that plan, and you have to lead with vision.”
Alltop, who holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Orchestral Conducting from Northwestern University, also sees parallels between music and sports. Veteran point guard (conductor of the offense) and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul plays for the Phoenix Suns, Alltop’s favorite NBA team. Paul ranks first among active NBA players in career assists. But it’s Paul’s leadership that impresses Alltop the most.
“Look at every team Chris Paul has played for in his career, and you’ll find that every one improved right after he joined it,” Alltop says, referring to the New Orleans Hornets (2005- 2011), Los Angeles Clippers (2011-2017), Houston Rockets (2017-2019), Oklahoma City Thunder (2019-2020), and Suns. “The best leaders know what it takes to help their teammates become better players.
“It is an honor for me,” he adds, “to work with highly trained musicians and help them perform great music. I look at music as an opportunity to produce something special and to convey something, which is an incredible privilege and a reward.”
Alltop wore out two albums, Rossini: Overtures and Switched-On Bach, as a child and probably listened to Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture more times than Chris Paul dribbles a basketball in a season. He was six years old, maybe seven, when he first experienced a visceral response to music.
“That hasn’t changed, hasn’t diminished in the least,” says Alltop, who has two children, Stephanie, 27, and Alexis, 24. “I’ll always be grateful that the church I attended in my childhood had a great music program, and my parents (Peggy and the late Jim) were quite supportive, early on, of my interest in music. I remember my dad telling me, ‘Do what you love to do and the money will follow.’”
In 2012 Alltop married Josefien Stoppelenburg, a gifted and decorated soprano who grew up in the Netherlands. They first met when she auditioned for him. They first performed together as friends, in 2011, for the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Greater Chicago Region chapter and headlined an event in Stoppelenburg’s homeland in 2018.
The couple entertained seniors at a Presbyterian Home in Evanston on March 19, five days after presenting “Heroines of the Baroque” at the Arizona Bach Festival at Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Scottsdale.
On March 21 they graced an audience with their quintessence at Guarneri Hall in Chicago.
“It’s beautiful what we have,” Alltop says. “My wife and I lead a wonderful life together, full of music and laughter and travel.”
Visit stephenalltop.com for more information and details of the “Cirque Returns” concert Alltop will conduct with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra this summer.