Comfort and joy 

Symphony shoots for holiday jazz, new ears

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is jazzing up its Holiday Pops show this year with some big band flair. And if you think about it, why wouldn’t they be, uh, “in the mood”: Season tickets are hot cakes. While ticket sales have increased by 15 percent the last couple years—a percentage higher than national trends—the number of season ticket holders jumped 50 percent this season, from 850 to 1,250.

One of the main reasons for the outburst of interested symphony-goers has a lot to do with the Missoula Symphony Association’s new deal of providing first-time subscribers season tickets at half the price.

“It’s a way for us to get people to come and check us out who maybe came to a couple of concerts before but weren’t quite sure they would enjoy the whole season,” says Music Director Darko Butorac. “The idea is, you used to be able to say that for half a tank of gas you can go see the symphony for the whole year. Now the price [of gas] has dropped so it’s not quite that, but for 30 bucks or so you’re able to purchase a whole season of symphony tickets.”

The jazzified Pops concert features a first half of jazz classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” by Duke Ellington and “That Old Black Magic” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. The second half serves up Christmas carols like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland.” The full program guest stars soprano vocalist Teri Hansen with a highlight of her tackling the Ella Fitzgerald version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” with backup by local choral group Dolce Canto.

“The nice thing about Christmas music is there’s a variety to choose from,” says Butorac. “You have secular pieces, you have religious pieces, you have pieces that are poppy and jazzy and pieces that are more traditional.”

One nontraditional piece will be a play on the famously repetitive carol “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

“It’s a hilarious piece called ‘The 12 Days After Christmas,’” says Butorac. “You can imagine what that’s like. It’s quite fun to do. That’s actually my least favorite carol, so I always have to find a way to do something fun with it.”

Butorac is adamant that MSO be more accessible to the public. The Pops concert is one way to do that, even with more classical pieces like suites from The Nutcracker, which have become familiar among even those who don’t regularly attend concerts.

“[The Nutcracker] is a great piece. Everybody knows it and it’s actually, musically, quite challenging to play,” says Butorac. “I mean, it’s a serious piece of classical music, and only through its use in pop culture has it shed its highbrow image. It’s sort of what we want to do with the symphony anyway, you know? We’re not stuffy.”

The next classical concert will be full of familiar tragic love pieces with songs from Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet: three different storylines from three different genres which, Butorac points out, basically tell “the same story of a great love, which only becomes great because somebody dies and the love is lost.”

But Butorac and the association are taking the notion of accessibility even further with a few outreach tricks. This Friday, for instance, chamber musicians will play at the First National Bank on Higgins Avenue between 5:30 and 7 p.m. for a musical gallery called “Art for Your Ears.”

“Anybody from the street can come in and feel comfortable, listen and leave whenever they want,” Butorac says. “It’s not a concert. It’s a chance to meet the musicians from the orchestra.”

Butorac is also starting up a series of pre-concert talks, free to ticket holders, which will provide context for each evening’s performance. He says that it’s not necessary to have an elaborate background to each piece, but having some kind of framework provides access to the music in a way that can enhance the enjoyment of it.

“If you were sitting there for two hours twiddling your thumbs and pretending to be in high society, that’s not what concerts are about,” says Butorac. “Concerts are about having some sort of experience that means something to you.”

But Butorac emphasizes that his talks will be nothing close to lecture.

“A lot of organizations, when you go to one of these talks you feel like you’re in a church or something and somebody’s speaking from the pulpit. No,” he says. “This is supposed to be more interactive, a way to find out some things about the composer, meet the guest artist, tell stories. Conductors,” he adds with a grin, “are full of great anecdotes.”

The rise in ticket holders comes at a time when MSO has experienced some economic blows after a couple of major sponsors pulled financial support last summer. But the organization remains optimistic about its future.

“We’re blessed with having 200 years of genius behind us doing wonderful things,” he says. “But the mode of delivery for this music hasn’t changed since 1850, so that’s where we’re looking to change a little bit—to relate to the people around us.” 

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra performs the Holiday Pops concert Saturday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 PM and Sunday, Dec. 7, at 3 PM at the University Theatre. $8–35.
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