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.


•••

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.

"For people who were there, they understood the message," Butorac says. "But it appeased the government because the piece was done in the traditional style."

When Butorac thinks of experimental artists he might not bring up Frank Zappa or Lydia Lunch, but he will talk of Igor Stravinsky. The composer's technically difficult piece, "Rite of Spring," is so chaotic, so barbaric, that when it was first played in 1913, in a Paris hall, it incited a riot between those who loved it and those who thought it was ugly.

"This is a composer who wanted to shock people," Butorac says. "He was like Madonna. He always changed his styles and he made lots of money."

These days, musicians are in the spotlight, not composers.

"Classical music has shot itself in the foot because it has not allowed composers of our time to come through," he says. "If you look at the old masters—Beethoven, Mozart, Bach—these people were the best musicians of their time. How cool would it be if we had pieces composed by Yo Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Itzhak Perlman? But they are performers not composers. And composers went into academia. There is a rift, starting from 1913. And the composer begins to care less and less about the audience, and so the audience says, 'Goodbye. Roll over Beethoven. Chuck Berry, hello.'"


•••

When you are a classical musician, you know the climaxes of a particular requiem or the last note of a chaconne. You know that there's an exciting horn solo five minutes in, or that the light tone in one section will eventually come to a dark turn. Sarah Solie, an MSO cellist, says Butorac inspires the musicians by picking works that are challenging but attainable. He also inspires because of his infectious attitude.

click to enlarge Darko Butorac, 35, demonstrates the “characters of harmony,” wherein a different emotion applies to each note. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Darko Butorac, 35, demonstrates the “characters of harmony,” wherein a different emotion applies to each note.

"I talk about him being charismatic in rehearsals, but he is so, so good in concerts about reaching out to the audience and making them feel involved," she says. "He has a very charming stage presence. I hope that people come for the music, but I know people come for Darko."

Butorac's ability to woo audiences and musicians and energize a concert hall stems from a life that includes both loss and opportunity. Butorac grew up in Yugoslavia. He recalls it being one of the more liberal of the communist countries at the time; as long as you didn't talk too much against the state you were free to do what you liked—and people liked listening to and playing music.

"There was a great love of music in that part of the world," Butorac says. "You were born to it, you lived to it and you died to it."

Besides a grand uncle who was a successful folk musician, no one in Butorac's family played an instrument. His grandfather, however, was a classical music record distributor and so Butorac's home was filled with classical LPs, along with popular recordings.

"I heard music all the time, and all kinds," he says. "I loved listening to my LP of [Modest Mussorgsky's] Pictures at an Exhibition, side by side with my mom's LPs of the Beatles, side by side with my first LP of Falco'Rock Me Amadeus.' I still have it. There was never a conflict between classical music, folk music and pop music, no stigma with 'This kind of people listens to that' and 'That kind of people listens to this.' It was all just music."

When he was 10, Butorac's mother applied to graduate school in Seattle on a whim.

"My brilliant mother," he says. "She had the inspired idea, literally as a joke, to apply for a master's degree in statistics, and then, to her surprise, she got in with a full scholarship and full ride."

The family moved to the Emerald City in 1988. Butorac's mother saw it as a temporary stint, an opportunity for her son to learn English while she got her degree. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav wars were breaking out and, by 1991, Yugoslavia had disappeared.

Back in Seattle, Butorac was dealing with the culture shock of a new place, as well as the knowledge that his homeland would never be the same.

"It's a traumatic experience anyway as a kid to emigrate from a very different system," he says. "At the same time, what you grew up with—what everybody told you was the way—you realize isn't."

click to enlarge Symphony musicians who play under Butorac’s direction say his energy is infectious. “I hope that people come for the music,” says cellist Sarah Solie, “but I know they come for Darko.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF NADA PLESKONJIC
  • photo courtesy of Nada Pleskonjic
  • Symphony musicians who play under Butorac’s direction say his energy is infectious. “I hope that people come for the music,” says cellist Sarah Solie, “but I know they come for Darko.”

The magnet school he attended had the best school orchestra in the city. He played cello. While other school orchestras were playing basic arrangements, his was pulling off the music that city orchestras were tackling—big romantic pieces, like Verdi's Requiem. The more grandiose, the more Butorac liked it.

"Who doesn't like the feeling of being physically moved by sound?" he asks. "And besides, subtlety is not exactly a game for youth."

By the time Butorac reached high school, Seattle was fully infected with the grunge scene. While kids in flannel shirts and 20-hole combat boots traded Soundgarden and Nirvana tapes in Pioneer Square, Butorac was discovering Schubert's "Death and the Maiden Quartet" and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 4." It wasn't that he was unaware of other music (he had a Dr. Dre cassette, for instance), he just didn't care for grunge. And to rebel, he says, he immersed himself into classical even more.

Butorac didn't have any intentions at the time to turn music into a career. It was a high school hobby and an easy thing to do at a school where the orchestra was actually celebrated. But the nurturing environment exposed him to rare performances not typical among most teenagers. His first opera was Madama Butterfly. He also had the chance to experience Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, an epic 16 hours of music spread across a week. "It was the coolest thing ever," he says. "People buy airplane tickets to see it halfway across the world, plus shelling out serious cash because it's so rare."

By the end of high school, Butorac had played nearly 60 pieces from the core classical music repertoire. Then, during his senior year, he discovered conducting. He recalls renting videotapes of the great Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber, whose quick, playful gestures made him look like a magician.

"He's able to tell stories with his gestures and that's what all conductors aspire to," Butorac says. "The bug bit me. I got addicted to it and I decided to pursue."

Over the next few years, while in college at Indiana University for instrumental conducting, Butorac went back to visit his homeland. He saw that Serbia wasn't the Yugoslavia that he'd left. The wars had gutted the economy and tattered the social fabric. It was traumatic, he says. But it was also a lesson on impermanence and a catalyst for how he would approach his life and his music.

"There's no steadiness, life is fluid," he says. "A lot of great music deals with the subject of loss. I had a teacher who said, 'You want to grow as a musician? Feel pain. Seek it because it will make you understand.'"


•••

When Executive Director John Driscoll started working for the Missoula Symphony Orchestra in 1999, it was a different organization. People who liked symphonic music went to the MSO concerts and everyone else didn't really know they were happening. The organization was seeing about 900 to 1,100 audience members per weekend, which could pack one concert hall. With two shows per weekend, that number spread thin.

"We were doing a nice job of playing great classical music for our core audience," Driscoll says. "But if I wasn't a musician [in the orchestra] I wouldn't have known about them."

Driscoll first met Butorac at the Missoula International Airport in 2006. Butorac, then the director of orchestras at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, was in town for a two-week audition for the position of MSO music director, replacing the revered Joseph Henry, who was retiring after 20 years.

click to enlarge One of Butorac’s greatest assets is being able to discuss classical music in a way that’s accessible and fun. “This is a composer who wanted to shock people,” he says of Igor Stravinsky. “He was like Madonna.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF DARKO BUTORAC
  • photo courtesy of Darko Butorac
  • One of Butorac’s greatest assets is being able to discuss classical music in a way that’s accessible and fun. “This is a composer who wanted to shock people,” he says of Igor Stravinsky. “He was like Madonna.”

"The first thing we did was go out to dinner," Driscoll says. "He was gregarious and super outgoing, really friendly and very talkative. All [of the conductors] who we invited to Missoula were very friendly when they came off the plane, all in different ways. But during that process the two weeks were so intense that the person you put back on the plane was a very different person from the person you met. Darko went back on the plane just as buoyant and energetic as when he got off the plane."

That new energy was what the MSO was looking for, and Butorac was hired within a few months.

Joe Nickell had been writing about the symphony since he came to Missoula in 1997, and he was among those surprised by the hire. Butorac was so youngjust 29and it seemed like a gamble.

When Nickell attended one of the first concerts with Butorac at the helm, he was even more skeptical. The symphony was performing Jean Sibelius' "Valse Triste," which requires delicate precision. Nickell, a music critic for the Missoulian at the time, waited for it to unravel.

"It's a really beautiful piece that's supposed to be played very quietly," Nickell says. "That was not a strength I'd recognized in this orchestra previously. But Darko managed to get the orchestra to play the piece with intense quietude."

After leaving the Missoulian, Nickell ended up joining MSO last year as a percussionist.

As more symphony fans began noticing the new conductor, MSO started ramping up the outreach efforts that Henry had initiated and finding new ways to connect with its audience. Butorac hit the downtown streets wearing safari gear and pretending to tame a lion in order to get families interested in the annual children's concert. He drove the Big Dipper Ice Cream truck around Bonner Park to promote the Bachalette ice cream, a coffee and chocolate flavor made specifically for the symphony. In 2009, he started giving pre-concert talks in the Dennison Theatre, where people could gather 30 minutes before the symphony concert to hear the stories behind that night's selections and ask Butorac questions. Butorac and a handful of musicians sometimes showed up at the farmers markets or at First Friday galleries to play to unsuspecting crowds.

It was Butorac's idea to start a podcast, but Driscoll encouraged him to pair up with radio personality Leah Lewis. In 2010, the duo kicked it off with a conversation about Maurice Ravel's "Bolero." Rather than sticking with a straight talk about the piece, Butorac and Lewis let the discussion wind its way through Bolero's connection with seemingly disparate subjects such as Bo Derek, frontotemporal dementia, the Sarajevo Olympics and Dudley Moore.

click to enlarge Butorac began his music career in Seattle where he learned to love bombastic pieces like Giuseppe Verdi’s “Dies Irae” from Messa de Requiem. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Butorac began his music career in Seattle where he learned to love bombastic pieces like Giuseppe Verdi’s “Dies Irae” from Messa de Requiem.

"She's a perfect foil for him," Driscoll says of Lewis. "You need somebody strong to stand up to a conductor."

The DownBeat DownLow, as the podcast is called, developed a following.

"It's tough to gauge how many ticket sales have come directly from the podcasts," Driscoll says. "But clearly people are listening. And that's what I'm proud ofthat we were able to find a forum to allow Darko to be who he is. He's super educated and smart and communicative about his area of expertise, but also in a way that is appropriate for his generation, too."

As part of the larger outreach efforts, Butorac visited local schools to talk about and perform classical music. In May, the symphony visited Ovando and played to a group of 30 people including students, their parents and grandparents. They played Dvorák's "American String Quartet," a song that was inspired by the American West. Unlike the bombastic leaps of Verdi's Requiem or the experimental cacophony of "Rite of Spring," this one was something that, to Butorac, might speak more to people surrounded by a rural landscape.

"The piece has a kind of frontier feel to it," he says. "It's almost a little lonely, like being alone in the prairie. And people got it. You see it in their faces."

Driscoll says the symphony looked for ways to appeal to new audiences without shutting out its core. High-end, high-ticket benefits were still a major focus for the organization, but they added a new fundraiser, too: The Ovando Gran Fondo, an off-road, endurance bike ride that seemed tailor-made to a place as outdoorsy as Missoula.

Perhaps the most effective, wide-reaching attempt at getting new listeners has been the symphony's free concert at Caras Park, which was started in 2005 by MSO, and garners 5,000 to 6,000 attendees each summer. Initially, the concert played classical greats. Butorac has taken the idea and made it a little wilder. Performances have movie themes and other popular music that people recognize. This year's concert is scheduled for Sun., Aug., 11, at 7 p.m., and, in addition to classics, includes "Night on Bald Mountain" from Fantasia and music from Saturday Night Fever.

"I think Symphony in the Park is my favorite concert," Butorac says. "Everybody comes out and everybody knows about it. I feel like a rock star with so many people there. And they get to share in the music, the humanity of it. The audience that comes to the park doesn't always come to the regular concerts."

Driscoll says the symphony has gone out of its way to be goofy for the last several years in an effort to bring in new audiences. But now that the community has gotten a taste for how accessible MSO can be, the organization wants to start introducing the classics again, but in a new light. You like John Williams' Indiana Jones theme? Perhaps you'll like Bela Bartok.

click to enlarge As a child in the former Yugoslavia, Butorac, pictured here at age 4 with his grandfather, learned to appreciate classical records along with his parents’ Beatles albums. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DARKO BUTORAC
  • photo courtesy of Darko Butorac
  • As a child in the former Yugoslavia, Butorac, pictured here at age 4 with his grandfather, learned to appreciate classical records along with his parents’ Beatles albums.

"Our marketing campaign has been offbeat for years," Driscoll says. "We've gone a little more traditional this year, but we can. We've broken through that stuffiness barrier. Now we can go back to the idea that this is great music."

For some people, Butorac says, that transition from stuffiness to simply great music is still hard to make if it means walking into a concert hall where the musicians wear tuxes and the question of when to clap is still shrouded in mystery.

"All of a sudden you take the atmosphere from sitting in a field having a picnic, having wine, to sitting in a seat in a concert hall next to people you don't know," he says. "And people become afraid. That's the fear I try to break down."


•••

Butorac is candid about the problems that classical music culture has created for itself. The conservative dress of a symphony isn't going to entice a punk rock crowd to sit down for a listen. And image has become part of how we identify with music. For instance, he says, if you take the Ramones, dress them in tuxes and put them in Carnegie Hall, it's going to be weird, even if they play the same music they always do.

"So imagine if the orchestra was painted in Kiss makeup standing on a stage with crazy lights and fog machines," he says. "It would be ridiculous. People would laugh at it the same way you would laugh at the Ramones. It wouldn't be honest. So let's just talk about the music."

As Butorac works to make classical music more accessible to the average person, he is emerging among the conducting ranks. He recently took on the position of music director for the Tallahassee Symphony. His announcement on Facebook brought a flurry of concern and sadness that he might be leaving Missoula. But Butorac quickly corrected the comments: He wasn't leaving Missoula, he'd be doing both jobs.

During the summer, when MSO isn't performing, he travels through Europe as a guest conductor. This is where he gets to see a wide range of audiences and how they react to symphonic music. He recently had a performance in Faenza, Italy, of the opera La Traviata. The city had been hit by an earthquake and the theater was closed, but they managed to fit the production inside a community center. About 500 people showed up, mostly elderly men and women who play cards and chess at the center.

click to enlarge Outside of the symphony’s concert hall, Butorac strives to make classical music more accessible by recording a podcast and hosting pre-concert talks with audience members. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Outside of the symphony’s concert hall, Butorac strives to make classical music more accessible by recording a podcast and hosting pre-concert talks with audience members.

"It was their music and they knew every word, knew what was going to happen," he says. "They were singing along, they were crying along, crying in the middle of it! They cheered after the arias. The energy was unbelievable."

In Serbia, his former homeland, he played in a 15th century fortress to an audience that had not had a classical music concert in 40 years. Butorac had scheduled three encores for the show. After the third one, they brought the orchestra off the stage. But the audience kept clapping.

"So we brought the orchestra back on stage and played four more encores," he says, smiling. "Seven encores in a concert! That was amazing. You live for those moments."

Being in Serbia reminded him of the person he was before the fall of Yugoslavia and the person he became as a conductor, when he fell in love with classical music.

"I come from a place that is very old fashioned in its attitudes," he says. "For example we're deathly afraid of the draft—of moving air. If I sit in a doorway and there's cold air moving, I will catch pneumonia and die within days. This is a national fear. There is a certain rigidness. And so it's so beautiful to live in America where you can do anything."

Deciding not to be afraid of change is what has helped Butorac let go of his former country and embrace another. He brings that boldness to his conducting style and his life, and he's searching for just the right way to get other people to do the same.

"One must have the courage to say, 'What's the worst that could happen?'" he says. "You might go and hear a piece you've never heard before and you might hate it. That's the worst thing. What's the best thing that could happen? You could go and discover a whole new art form you never knew existed—a magic you never knew existed—and be moved by it. And that's what's more likely to happen."

Listen up: Darko Butorac has put together classical playlists for the big and small moments of your life. Listen to them right now at the Indy's arts forum, Green Room.

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