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The maestro

Darko Butorac is making classical music cool again

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"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.

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."

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.

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