The maestro 

Darko Butorac is making classical music cool again

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"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.

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