Amarillo native Ilana Setapen returns as soloist for weekend symphony concerts

Posted by Chip Chandler on
Ilana Setapen is guest soloist for Amarillo Symphony's next concerts.

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

She grew up playing alongside the musicians of Amarillo Symphony. Now, after 16 years away, violinist Ilana Setapen will return as a guest soloist.

Setapen will perform with the symphony at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Van Buren St. Tickets are $20 to $55, plus fees. Call 806-376-8782.

She'll be featured on Ernest Chausson's Poème​ and Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Cappricioso; the orchestra also will perform Saint-Saëns' Danse Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah and Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. (The latter will feature massive church bells borrowed from the Dallas Symphony; check this story for details.)

The weekend concerts will be her first performances with the symphony since she was a member as a high school student, sitting with mother Carol, another violin player, and performing under the baton of her father, James Setapen, the symphony's music director & conductor for 19 years.

"It's a little bit trippy, I have to say," Ilana Setapen said. "I'm really excited. It's not like any other concert I've ever done. Usually, I go to places I've never been before or been only once or twice, not some place I spent 13 years of my life, completely growing up there and knowing all the ins and outs of the city.

"I'm excited to see a bunch of familiar faces in the orchestra — and in the audience, I'm sure," she said. "I'm really excited to see the (Globe-News Center) because I was gone by the time it was built. I hear it's great to play in from multiple sources."

The younger Setapen began studying music in the Amarillo College Suzuki Strings program — "I think it's one of the hidden treasures of the arts scene there," she said — and took lessons from her mother and former symphony and Harrington String Quartet members Corinne Stillwell and Annie Chalex-Boyle. She performed in the then-Amarillo Symphony Youth Orchestras through high school and joined the symphony proper as a substitute player until her graduation from Amarillo High School. Her parents left following the 2006-07 season and moved to the Chicago area, where he is academy director at the Music Institute of Chicago and she maintains a full teaching and performing schedule.

"It was a huge learning experience, but going to work with both my parents was very strange," Setapen said. "I remember vividly that my dad would have a recording on in the car of whatever piece we were doing that week, and he would shush me if I started talking — 'No, you need to listen to this.'"

But even if that was somewhat unusual, Setapen said it was invaluable.

"I think that provided me the framework and the inspiration for me wanting to become an orchestra musician," she said. "Especially because my dad is such a passionate musician. He seemed to never become jaded like so many other people, and that love of each performance he really instilled in me from a young age and made it feasible for me to conceive a life in music."

Because of that formative experience in Amarillo, returning is a little "bittersweet," she said.

"I'm obviously excited to work with (guest conductor) Lawrence Loh ... but it will be strange to have all of those musicians I grew up with minus the two most important," she said. "But I'm still looking forward to it as I look forward to every performance."

After graduating, Setapen attended school at the University of Southern California for her undergraduate degree, where she attributed instructor Robert Lipsett with making her "into a soloist," then attained her master's degree at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. For the past eight seasons, she has worked as the associate concertmaster at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and as a concert soloist around the country.

Her solo work "comes in clusters. For instance, this year, I have three within a six-month period," she said. "It's a good mix for me. It's a lot of work to prepare for solo work when I'm also playing in a full-time orchestra (for 40 weeks out of the year).

"And I'm lucky here in Milwaukee. They've offered me a solo every year I've been here, which is very special and very unusual for an associate. It's a really good balance for me."

She began working on the Chausson piece about a year ago — a little earlier than normal, even for a work she had never played, but she had a good excuse: She was pregnant with her first child, a son named Asher (now almost 5 months old), and figured that time would be limited closer to the concert.

"I have to be really, really diligent with the little time I have and wise about how I spend it," Setapen said. "Asher will listen to me practice for about 30 minutes, if he's in a good mood ... so it has to be a very productive 30 minutes."

She's much more familiar with her other piece.

"The Saint-Saëns is an old favorite of mine that I've done many times, so that'll be secure in my fingers, and the Chausson is a good challenge to get comfortable with," she said. "I'm glad to have those opportunities to keep it interesting."




Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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