Coffee Talk with Darko Butorac

by Adam Rosen

Come Saturday night, the second of six candidates vying to be the Asheville Symphony Orchestra’s next music director will take the podium at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Darko Butorac is currently music director of the Missoula and Tallahassee symphony orchestras. Born in Belgrade (in the former Yugoslavia) and raised in Seattle, Butorac has called Montana home for the past ten years.

For his program on Saturday, a celebration of seemingly dissimilar works titled “Versus,” Butorac will bring together pieces by Mozart, Prokofiev, and contemporary American composer Christopher Theofanidis.

As part of the ASO’s ongoing Coffee Talk interview series, I caught up with Butorac at Trade and Lore Coffee on Wednesday, November 15. By the time we met, Butorac had familiarized himself quite a bit with our area, having spent the previous week in town taking in live music at the Grey Eagle and ISIS Music Hall and sampling local delicacies from White Duck Taco Shop, Gan Shan Station, and other Asheville dining establishments.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Butorac discusses giving a TED talk in Missoula, the themes in his ASO program, his thoughts on the hit TV comedy-drama “Mozart in the Jungle,” and much more.

AR: Where do you identify if someone asks you where you’re from?
DB: I suppose if I’m asked where I’m from I’d probably say Belgrade. It’s my hometown. But you know, right now home is Missoula. It’s been that way for a long time. I fit in well in this global world. I learn something new everywhere I’ve been.

AR: How did you wind up giving a TED talk in Missoula?
DB: I happened to be at a dinner event promoting the Missoula Art Museum, and the person who was organizing the TED event happened to be there, and we had a nice conversation about language and music. Basically, how the mother tongue of composers influences their musical background. And he asked, “Would you like to do a TED talk?” The date was free, so I said, sure, why don’t we do it. But then I convinced him that instead of talking about language and composers, we should talk about the language of conducting. What it is that conductors do on the podium.

AR: What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about conducting?
DB: I hate generalizing. But maybe the fact that the conductor is “playing” the orchestra. You’re not really playing the orchestra. I think the conductor is shaping the music, and responding to what they hear, molding what’s about to happen.

AR: The works you selected for your program on Saturday span multiple centuries. What common threads unite them?
DB: They are three great pieces, on a very basic level. In my mind, I like the combination of Prokofiev and Mozart. To me it’s like two good flavors that work well together. There’s also a nice contrast in terms of keys. You have an A-major concerto followed by a piece that is heavily in B-flat, so there is a contrast between them. Also, I didn’t want to do a completely traditional concert in Asheville.

AR: Why not?
DB: Because it’s Asheville! It’s a creative place. You gotta do something a little different. In this particular case, I really like the piece “Rainbow Body”—it’s a tremendous piece. It was written in the 21st century, in 2000, so it’s a fairly new piece that has an entirely different aesthetic than Mozart and Prokofiev. If there is a thread that connects all three, I suppose it’s that all are hopeful and positive pieces. The first one is very radiant. It’s inspired by medieval chant, but it’s called “Rainbow Body” because that’s the name for a concept in Zen Buddhism where the earthly body goes away and the energy is transformed into light.

AR: I read in your bio that you collaborated with the actor J. K. Simmons. Tell me about that.
DB: It was amazing. J. K.’s family has Missoula connections, and that’s how I met them initially. We paired Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with a reading of the Sullivan Ballou letter [the Union soldier’s touching letter to his wife was made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War]. We did it twice, in Missoula and Tallahassee. In Tallahassee the performance was particularly special because it happened on the 150-year anniversary of the Appomattox treaty.

AR: What have you been doing in Asheville?
DB: I love walking around town, seeing locals, seeing tourists. 

AR: We have lots of those.
DB: That’s what struck me, the difference between West Asheville and downtown. West Asheville felt really real in the best way possible.

AR: You’re like a local—already complaining about tourists!
DB: I am a tourist—so I’m allergic to them. [Laughs.] I travel quite a bit, and I love looking for authentic experiences. Something which feels real.

AR: What do you think of the Amazon television series “Mozart in the Jungle”?
DB: As a classical musician you have to take it with a grain of salt. I look at it as a telenovela; a cute telenovela. It’s a story about the orchestra, and yes, there are all the clichés of the orchestra. But it does go after the beauty of music, and I think it can bring that to the audience. And it’s also a story of the relationship between [oboist] Haley and [conductor] Rodrigo. And frankly I think Gael García Bernal [Rodrigo] is phenomenal. His conducting is atrocious, but he’s phenomenal.

Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.
www.adammrosen.com