May 28, 2007
Passing the baton in MissoulaJoe Nickell
This past week, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra named its new music director after a two-year search that included a full season of auditions by five finalists for the position. Although commonplace among most American orchestras today, the search process was probably quite bizarre to locals, who had never before seen a full-time conductor vetted in such a way for the orchestra. (The last time a conductor was hired -- more than 20 years ago -- the job was still part of the duties of a professor at the University of Montana, who was hired through more traditional academic processes.)
The new conductor, Darko Butorac, is at 29 years old less than half the age of the previous conductor, Joseph Henry. He's also less than half the age of some of the members of the orchestra. The 6'4" conductor proudly notes he can dunk a basketball, and is a big fan of the Phoenix Suns.
This is, needless to say, a sea-change for the orchestra (the previous conductor once admitted to having heard OF the Rolling Stones, but was unable to name any of their songs).
There has been much attendant excitement throughout the interviewing and audition process, with good attendance at concerts and much media coverage. The orchestra has sounded markedly better, playing with an intensity and unity that wasn't previously the norm.
On Thursday, I attended an event welcoming our new conductor to the community. The mayor passed him a "baton" to the city, more than 100 people showed up (pretty good for a midweek morning in this small town), and the sense of a New Era for Missoula was palpable.
After the welcoming event, I walked to a nearby coffeeshop with a friend who plays in the orchestra. As we chatted, it emerged that he was preoccupied with a question that has likely crossed the minds of many in this town: What is the real potential for change, now that this new conductor is here?
Ostensibly, theoretically, the sky is the limit. But more realistically, there are issues both practical and philosophical that limit the local orchestra's ability to rise to world-class artistic status.
Like every small-town orchestra today, the first of these issues is the size of the orchestra's budget. Though I've never heard a member of the MSO complain seriously about the pay they receive -- which, in most cases, is less than minimum wage -- it's clear enough that the orchestra is unable to attract professional musicians to this town based on its compensation package; it must instead rely on the charity of whatever players are available and willing. Fortunately, the the University of Montana has a strong music faculty, stacked with pro-level players who are willing to play in the orchestra simply for the experience. However, that faculty can't fill an entire string section -- or even a flute section.
The bigger issue, however, is philosophical. The MSO remains fundamentally a community orchestra, meaning that part of its goal is to provide members of the community with an opportunity to play orchestral music. There are players in the orchestra who likely could pass no professional audition; but they are provided with the priceless opportunity to participate in the glorious experience of playing great classics of the repertoire through their participation in the MSO. These are our doctors and receptionists, our busboys and businesswomen. Some make up in extra effort and preparation what they lack in professional training and experience; but some simply can't.
Thus it's safe to say that, in the foreseeable future, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra will not rival the Berlin Philharmonic on purely artistic standards.
My friend in the orchestra wasn't frustrated by this limited potential of the orchestra. Rather, he seemed more worried about the unrealistic expectations of members of the community who might suddenly lose sight of what the orchestra is really about. He worried that a coinciding push for a new, multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Missoula might further feed the fervor.
He has a point. The value and success of this orchestra to this city cannot -- SHOULD not -- be gauged solely on its ability to play music flawlessly. Rather, its most important role is to engage the community in great music, draw it into interaction with the artistic process, and provide a forum for townspeople to share as actors and audience in the sacred social ritual of performance.
The Missoula Symphony Orchestra has a new leader. I just hope that boosters of the orchestra don't allow the buzz to obscure the true value of this band to this town.
Posted by Joe Nickell at May 28, 2007 11:53 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: