The fifth of seven up-and-coming young conductors auditioning throughout the current season for the post as California Symphony music director raises his baton in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts on Tuesday night -- and he's in the mood for love.

The Grammy-nominated Alistair Willis, 41, a Massachusetts native who spent much of his youth in Moscow and England, is leading a pre-Valentine's Day "Sounds of Love" concert that will include selections from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," Georges Bizet's "Carmen" and Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann." Cole Porter's "I Love Paris," the Suite from Alan Jay Lerner's "Gigi" and George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" are also on the bill, and if the lineup sounds a tad fluffy as audition material for a hopeful maestro of the middleweight but highly regarded modern symphony orchestra -- not to worry. Willis' track record clearly shows he has the chops to conduct the heavy duty stuff as well.

. © Todd Rosenberg PhotographyAlistair Willis conducts the California Symphony Tuesday night in a program dedicated to the theme of love.
. © Todd Rosenberg Photography Alistair Willis conducts the California Symphony Tuesday night in a program dedicated to the theme of love. ( © Todd Rosenberg Photography )

For his first concert as the incoming music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra this past summer, Willis chose Beethoven's mighty Fifth Symphony to counterbalance an already programmed concert bill. His conducting résumé includes posts as the associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony and the assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra, and he has collaborated on many occasions with celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma as a conductor for his peripatetic Silk Road Ensemble. A recording on the Naxos label Willis made in 2009 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra of a concert version of Maurice Ravel's opera "L'enfant et les Sortileges" snagged a Grammy nomination as best classical album. That it eventually lost out to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's triple award-winning recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and the Adagio from No. 10 is ample testament to the kind of competition he was up against.

Willis is no stranger to the cattle-call audition process, either (actually, the California Symphony is likening it more to an "American Idol" tryout). He was the successful candidate among the field of five conductors who vied for the post in Illinois. Among the others in contention, as irony would have it, was San Francisco Symphony resident conductor Donato Cabrera, who is next in line in the cavalcade auditioning at Cal Symph. Cabrera will conduct a March 3 program of Beethoven, John Adams and Prokofiev, and Cincinnati Symphony associate conductor Robert Trevino will bring the process to its conclusion with May 4-5 performances of works by D.J. Sparr, Beethoven and Berlioz. Input will be taken from California Symphony audiences, the musicians and the symphony board's selection committee, and the new music director's name will be announced in May.

Details: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek; $35-$65, 925-943-7469, www.calsymph.org.

IN BERKELEY: Cal Performances, which brings around all manner of stellar music, theater and dance events throughout the year, has a couple of especially inviting recitals coming up next week.

On Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, the renowned bass-baritone Eric Owens makes his long overdue Bay Area recital debut. Owens, who triumphed as Alberich in the New York Metropolitan's most recent go-round with the Wagner "Ring" Cycle, has had multiple appearances at San Francisco Opera, including establishing the Gen. Leslie Groves character in the world premiere of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" in 2005 and starring in the opera's premiere of "Porgy and Bess" in 2009.

For his 3 p.m. recital with pianist Warren Jones, Owens will sing works by Hugo Wolf, Schumann, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel and Wagner.

Then at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the cerebral and supremely talented German violinist Christian Tetzlaff returns for a solo recital at the First Congregational Church just off the Berkeley campus. His last appearance was a scale-the-heights bravura assay of the complete Bach sonatas and partitas in 2010; for this performance, he will play music by Ysaye, Bach, Kurtag and Bartok.

Details: Tickets are $46 for Owens, $52 for Tetzlaff, available at 510-642-9988 or www.calperformances.org.

A NEW SEASON LAUNCHES: Chamber Music San Francisco, now entering its 10th season in its namesake city, has expanded over the years to include commonly sold out concert presentations in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto. This weekend, the organization brings the Bay Area debut of the prize-winning Szymanowski Quartet, a Warsaw-based ensemble that is half Polish and half Ukrainian, to all three locales. The quartet will perform works by Beethoven, Ravel and Dvorak at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Some tickets may be available in San Francisco for $34-$44. Call 415-392-4400 or go to www.chambermusicsf.org. Call 925-943-7469 for possible ticket availability in Walnut Creek.

Contact Sue Gilmore at sgilmore@bayareanewsgroup.com.