The maestro 

Darko Butorac is making classical music cool again

Darko Butorac takes a sheet of cooked pizza dough off the grill and sets it before his guests. "Tear! Tear!" he says boisterously when someone tries to daintily poke the dough with a fork. "Use your fingers. We're not being fancy here." The Le Petit Outre dough has been mixed with yogurt to form a naan-like bread that can be dipped in hummus. It's a dish Butorac was inspired to make after visiting Istanbul the week before, when he was working as a guest conductor. He grabs a piece for himself and quickly pours a glass of wine before getting down to more important business: music. He opens his iTunes library on the big-screen television in his living room, revealing thousands of classical tracks. Scrolling through the list he stops on one: Giuseppe Verdi's "Dies Irae."

"Let's listen to something big and bombastic," he says. "Why not?"

He clicks "play" and the first minor chord blasts from the speakers.

"Too quiet," he says, and turns up the volume.

The orchestral music crescendos and then spirals downward as the voices of the choir urgently wail like ghosts in a cathedral. It's a terrifying piece, just one part in Verdi's opera, Messa da Requiem. The title translates to "Days of Wrath" and it's the story of the mass of the dead, when souls rise from their graves to be judged. You might recognize "Dies Irae" from the 2000 Japanese thriller Battle Royale or from an "essentials" classical music compilation. But it's also just as likely you've never heard it before. For Butorac, the thought of someone missing out on it is a shame.

"If ever I remember a piece that was played to me for the first time, it's this one," Butorac says, yelling over the horns. "I remember the moment. I was 17 years old and I went to my friend's house. He said, 'You've got to listen to this.' And when I did I was so blown away, I immediately went out to buy it. Remember the Maxell commercial for tapes with the guy in the chair being blown back [by the sound]? That's what this music is."

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Butorac gestures in time with the song, grinning, his 6-foot-5 frame still looming though he sits on a stool in the middle of the room. He throws his large hands into the air as the sound of trumpets builds and the voices grow ever more hysterical. His dark hair swings loosely past his ears. Even in his casual polo, khaki pants and flip flops you can see that he carries a serious passion and knowledge of classical composition, and he's unafraid to be caught up by music in the presence of others. This is the soundtrack that has buoyed him throughout his life, through transcontinental moves and teenage rebellion and unsettled young adulthood. All he wants to do is share the music with others, and the best way he knows how is by displaying his own passion for it.

But the 35-year-old music director for the Missoula Symphony Orchestra knows that turning on new listeners to centuries-old music is easier said than done. While gray-haired crowds funnel into the symphony's concert halls, younger audiences tend to stay away. He's keenly aware that his generation and those that have followed tend to ignore classical music. That's why he's made it his mission since he arrived in Missoula six years ago to dispel the notion that the symphony is stuffy and antiquated and, therefore, irrelevant.

"It is Don Quixote against the windmills," says Butorac. "But my belief is that what we do—what the music offers—is something special. It does require time and patience. But no pain, no gain. If ever there was a great American proverb, it's that."

The great American proverb is just one of Butorac's pitches. Listen to him long enough and you hear, like a salesman, that he's trying out dozens of different lines in the hope that one sticks. And like any salesman, his biggest challenge is getting a whole segment of the population to buy into something they don't even know they're missing.


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In the marketing world, no matter how good the product, image makes the first impression. When the uninitiated see classical music, they imagine a concert hall full of nicely pressed tuxedos and formal dresses. They hear song titles like "Symphony No. 2" or "String Quartet No. 12" and yawn. That they might like one of those pieces doesn't matter because often they don't even get that far.

"It's very difficult to advertise classical music," Butorac says. "If I tell you 'Mahler Symphony No. 2,' the average person is like 'What? How do you spell Mahler?' They have no clue. To a classical musician it's like, 'Oh my god, yes!' If 'Mahler No. 2' was playing in town, I would be at that concert. It's a huge piece with a choir and orchestra, 200 people on stage. It's a total cut-your-veins, bleed-out, heart-on-sleeve type of piece. Leaves you shaking to the end. One of the most inspiring pieces ever written by man. But you don't know it because it's just 'Mahler No. 2.'"

Butorac's greatest asset is an ability to talk about classical music in a way that puts it on the same level as more mainstream references. He never disparages other types of music, but instead insists that classical can be considered the same way as pop, hip-hop, punk or folk.

"You ask anybody what their favorite songs are and they are the pieces they listened to when they were teenagers," Butorac says. "Music is not something we listen to independently of our lives. We tie music to emotional periods in our life. You remember the exact evening, you remember the exact color of the night, you remember the scent, the temperature, the season, who you're with. Everything is a big deal. 'Oh my god, she called me' or 'She didn't call me!' You listen to some music. You weep and cry or be exalted and jump up and down. And so those are the pieces that form you."

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Along with teenage heartbreak comes teenage rebellion. When Butorac thinks about rebellion, he doesn't necessarily think of anarchists whipping around in a mosh pit to Black Flag. He thinks of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5," which he first got to play when he was 16. It's a 45-minute piece that was written in 1936 in Soviet Russia, when Stalin was killing hundreds of people per day. Shostakovich had already written one opera—a racy, avant-garde composition filled with sex and blood—and Stalin went to see it.

"He hated it. He found it very decadent," Butorac says. "For the composer, this was like having a death warrant on his head, so he lived in his house with a suitcase packed so ... he would be ready to go."

Shostakovich then wrote "Symphony No. 5," which felt like a traditional romantic work—one that Stalin would like—but that had a subversive message. As the piece ends you can hear the "bom bom bom" of drums indicating triumph. But, especially during a live performance, Butorac says you can see that the triumph is false. The conductor keeps his gestures conservative as the drums pound. It's mechanical. Brutal. Unemotional. And to the Russian audience it was a familiar tone, like the sound of oppression.

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