August 20, 2009

Q&A with Michael Butterman

Right now at the RPO, we're all getting ready for the 2009-2010 season. We caught up with Michael Butterman, the RPO's Principal Conductor for Education and Outreach (The Louise and Henry Epstein Family Chair), to find out more about the upcoming season.

Next year's orKIDStra Family Series seems to have a theme of music that illustrates a story, with Carnival of the Animals, The Snowman, Babar the Elephant, and The Firebird. Please tell us more about those concerts.

Each concert in the orKIDStra series features a marquee or "brand-name" piece around which the rest of the program will be built. We're especially excited about The Firebird, which will be presented in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre along with some absolutely fantastic life-sized shadow puppets, and the return of The Snowman for our holiday concert. This animated classic, with live music from the RPO, was such a hit last year that we decided to bring it back. I think it could very well become a favorite new holiday tradition in Rochester. (Click here to learn about the full orKIDStra Series.)

The RPO also performs concerts for schoolchildren at Kodak Hall and around Monroe County. What's planned for those next year?

Our popular Tiny Tots programs for preschoolers will explore musical opposites through a new program based on the Goldilocks fairy tale. In this version (for which I've written a narration), Goldilocks stumbles upon the forest home of three very musical bears and learns about pitch (this instrument is too high ... this one is too low ... this one is just right!), volume, and tempo. Our Intermediate concerts, held in February and March for fourth graders, will draw comparisons between language and music, exploring ways in which the structure and elements of verbal communication are similar to those of musical communication. We also have our Primary concerts in May for third graders, for which the program is still being finalized.

What will you be doing for the Around the Town concerts next season?

Our fall concerts will be a bit like the Valley Manor program from this past summer, which was well-received. I called it "In Nature's Realm," after a Dvorak tone poem, and it included familiar pieces inspired by the natural world, like the Moldau, Schumann's Spring Symphony, Debussy's Clare de Lune, and so on. In the spring, we will be performing at, among other places, the performing arts center at Penfield High School as the culmination of a joint project between the RPO and the American Studies program at the high school. Throughout the year, I'll be making several visits to their classes, giving talks and leading discussions about the place of music in American cultural history – how American music assimilated European traditions while adding ingredients from African-American culture, for example. And how composers like Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were (or were not) affected by their own American journeys.

What's it like to conduct The Nutcracker, coordinating the music with the movements of the dancers?

You framed that question exactly correctly, since I really do feel as if I need to make the music work for the dancers. With the first few ballets I conducted, I wanted to make the music sound exactly the way I thought it should (especially in terms of tempo) if it were being performed on the concert stage. But now I always remind myself that, while I want the music to have dramatic tension and direction and so on, the dancers are the ones who are really on the line, so to speak. They have to complete their various maneuvers without tripping up and while maintaining smiles on their faces. I have great respect for what they're able to do and have become pretty accustomed to "reading" them (noticing whether I might need to speed up or slow down a bit) in performance.

You’ll also be conducting a couple of Pops concerts this year – are you brushing up on the music of ABBA?

I'm showing my age, but having grown up during the time when their music was "fresh," it's pretty much in my blood. I don't think it will take that much brushing up, frankly! And I must confess that ABBA's Greatest Hits has a semi-permanent place in one of the slots of the CD changer in our living room. Our five-year-old daughter uses the room as a makeshift dance studio and "Dancing Queen" is one of her favorites.

What music is in your CD or MP3 player right now?

Besides ABBA? I feel like I listen to music for a living, in a way, so I rarely have it on as background or merely for relaxation. I spend a lot of time with new pieces that composers or publishers send my way. If I'm preparing to conduct a certain piece, I also try to spend some time listening to other works by that composer (especially ones I don't know) to help provide a kind of context for understanding the one I'm about to do. And I try to do a fair amount of exploring ... just going to the Naxos site, for example, and browsing around, listening to bits and pieces of this and that; much the way one might browse the shelves in a bookstore.

What's your cell phone ring-tone?

You know, I always have it on vibrate. I listen to so much music that I probably wouldn't hear it ring anyway!

Where are your travels taking you during the summer break?

I was in Chicago in June for the League of American Orchestras conference. I've also been to Boulder (and Rochester) for concerts, but since the fall is shaping up to be especially travel-heavy, we decided to take some time for fun this summer. We visited family in California and Canada, met other family for some beach time in Florida, and thoroughly enjoyed our first experience at Disneyland.

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