Young and restless 

The new face of the Missoula Symphony is actually pretty cool

Darko Butorac doesn’t want for much. The recently appointed, 6-foot-5, 30-year-old music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra is slicker than a tuba’s spit valve, an incredibly affable and engaging personality in the seemingly stodgy world of classical music. Already, over the course of five months and two well-received programs, the Serbian-born, Seattle-raised wunderkind has dazzled local audiences with his energy, charisma and skill—not to mention some leading man looks. But there’s one area where Butorac needs a little help—the dude’s desperate for a pickup basketball game.

“I went to [graduate] school at Indiana and there’s this gym that has like 12 courts and you can go, day or night, and find at least five games of five-on-five,” Butorac says. “I’m still trying to find a game here. I hear the YMCA is good, but I haven’t checked it out yet. I’m hopeful.”

As he rattles off the accomplishments of the Serbian national basketball team, waxes about the virtues of professional stars like Steve Nash and Tim Duncan, and subtly drops in that, yes, he’s got some hops—“I dunked two weeks ago, warming up, to make sure I still could”—Butorac sounds strikingly normal. Lonely even. In fact, he sounds more like the typical Missoula newbie than the precocious poster boy of the MSO. And in a sense, that accessible persona epitomizes Butorac’s charm.

“So far, most times I go out it’s for a function, a work related event with the symphony,” he says with a remnant of his Serbian accent. “I’m still finding the best spots to, say, go get a beer. I love Missoula, but I’m still learning Missoula.”

Finding a good bar and a regular pickup basketball game will just be the start for Butorac in Missoula. He’s striving for much grander achievements, and he embodies an exceptional opportunity for the MSO. The 53-year-old orchestra has never had such a vibrant leader before, someone who reflects the younger generation that symphonies nationwide have struggled to attract. Butorac is, after all, younger than every member of local rockers Volumen—and he’s well aware of how his age positions him to reach new audiences.

“Certainly having a guy who’s younger, who fits into the demographic, it helps,” he says, noting that a recent study listed the average age of patrons at The Metropolitan Opera at 65. “People say, ‘If he can do it, if he’s into it, maybe there’s more to this music.’ I understand that. But the hardest part is just getting people to take that first step.”

Over the course of a recent one-hour lunch at Sean Kelly’s, Butorac is most excited when talking about how to get people to make that leap. When not stopping to greet well-wishers from adjacent tables or to devour a bowl of Moroccan stew, Butorac animatedly explains his ideas for educational outreach, concerts that incorporate multi-media, and generally elevating the MSO to a larger stage. And all the while he confronts head-on common preconceptions.

“When do you hear classical music in the movies?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s the evil henchman’s music. I’m thinking of Kevin Spacey in the last Superman and he listens to opera. In Die Hard the bad guy’s music is Beethoven’s ‘Ninth.’ We’re working with a social branding and that makes it very difficult. It’s hard to compete against popular culture.

“Obviously this music wasn’t written for henchmen and evil people,” he continues. “It was written for humanity. And the reason we still perform pieces that were written 200 years ago is because we still believe they are relevant. There’s something about Beethoven’s music that is about being an individual, about being a rebel, about being nonconformist. I mean, what else is our pop culture about these days?”

Butorac says bridging this social and generational gap presents a thorny, but critical challenge. He worries, for instance, about the MSO accidentally fueling prejudices while trying to entice the uninitiated.

“One idea we’ve been tossing around is pre-concert talks, but that’s dangerous,” he says. “Educate is a strong word. You don’t go to the symphony to get educated. You don’t want to feel lectured. That’s part of the elitist feeling. I’d like to think one can eventually be drawn in just by the music itself.”

That’s what happened to Butorac. He didn’t pick up an instrument until his family moved from Serbia to Seattle when he was in the sixth grade. During middle school and high school Butorac played cello, and as a senior he conducted his own one-concert-only, pick-up symphony.

“Oh, I’m sure it was terrible,” he says. “It’s one of those things where the bug just bites you. When you’re 18 and stupid and have no idea what you’re doing, it seemed like it would be fun. It was the ultimate instrument to me. All of a sudden you’re not just playing your instrument—you’re affecting how every instrument comes together.”

Since then every step Butorac has taken—undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, graduate work at Indiana and, most recently, Director of Orchestras at Northern Arizona University—has been aimed at becoming a full-time symphony conductor. It’s dumb luck that an opening came up in a place that happens to cater to his personal interests.

“There is not a lot of choice in this line of work,” he says. “You go where there is an opportunity and most of the time that ends up being, like, Arkansas or something. Nothing against Arkansas, but I am a mountain person, I love hiking and skiing and the outdoors. To be in Missoula is perfect.”

No wonder Butorac—young, charismatic, handsome, humble and an outdoorsman—has quickly endeared himself to MSO and Missoula at large. But even as he’s buried in accolades and busy reinvigorating a slumbering genre, Butorac doesn’t lose site of his main priority. Eventually it boils down to the music.

“Here’s the thing: You perform any piece of music, you better make sure it grabs the audience, that it goes after the audience,” he says. “If you hear a song on the radio—I don’t care what genre—if it grabs you, you want to find out more about it. It engages you. If we don’t engage you, it doesn’t matter how much we dress it up or what else we do. The music will always come first.”

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra presents Holiday Pops! featuring conductor Darko Butorac and special guest Aaron Lazar at the University Theatre Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 PM and Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 PM. Tickets range from $15 to $35. Call 721-3194.
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