Meet the conductor: Q&A with ASO music director finalist Darko Butorac

Darko Butorac, photo courtesy of the conductor

“The one thread that connects all great composers is their ability to inspire and move humanity through a sequence of sounds,” says Darko Butorac, the second of six finalists for the Asheville Symphony’s music director position to conduct a MasterWorks concert. “When that sequence seems inevitable, when you can’t change even a single note — this is what we can then call genius,” says Butorac. “Or Mozart.”

He’ll lead the symphony on Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m., at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The concert, titled Versus, is, “a program that spans three centuries and includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, featuring pianist Lisa Smirnova, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, and Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body,” according to a press release. Tickets run $24-$69. Info at

Xpress: What message do you hope to convey to the Asheville community with the program you’ve chosen?

Darko Butorac: This program has three distinct works and is centered around Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. It was written at the peak of his powers — he considered it his greatest piece. As you listen, you can notice all of his best traits — the lyricism of “Romeo and Juliet,” the grandeur of his film scores and operas, the quirkiness of “Peter and the Wolf,” the magic of “Cinderella” and the humor of “Lt. Kije.” It was written in 1944, at the height of [World War II], and yet it brims with optimism and hope — Prokofiev truly believed in the best side of humanity. This grand work is then balanced on the first half by Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, a radiant piece with the most sublime slow movement. The concert opens with [Christopher] Theofanidis’ work “Rainbow Body” — spectacular music inspired by a rare combination of medieval chant and Zen Buddhism. Theofanidis is a master of orchestration, the work glows with color and has a broad dramatic arch that is quite inspiring. So, if I had to to distill it: inspiration, radiance and hope — that is the message of this concert.

Do you feel strongly about performing contemporary classical music? Is that why you’ve included “Rainbow Body”?

Theofanidis is one of my favorite living composers. I had a chance to conduct several of his works and even meet him once in person. He is brilliant. I first heard the piece on the radio about 10 years ago and was immediately drawn to it for the reasons described above. I like to program new music as a way to illuminate a more familiar piece on the program, to offer the audience and the orchestra a chance to experience something a little unfamiliar.

Your 2015 TEDx talk, “The Language of Conducting,” is charming and engaging. Do you often seek opportunities — beyond the symphony stage — to educate audiences about music?

Yes, absolutely! I think one of the important roles of a music director is to be a champion of orchestral music and to spread that enthusiasm throughout the community. Anytime I can provide context to a listener prior to the concert, their experience can be so much more inspiring and enlightening. Listening to Prokofiev’s symphony on this program is completely different if you are aware of the adverse circumstances surrounding the creation of the work. The element of optimism and hope this music carries stands out so much stronger in that case.

Are you involved with any other art forms besides music?

I did study tango for several years; I am in love with both the dance and the music. (A recommendation for readers — check out the music of Osvaldo Pugliese.) Interestingly, there is a subtle parallel to conducting. One of the main tenets of leading an orchestra is to show with your hands what happens musically ahead of time. In tango, the same thing happens if you are the lead. You initiate your partner’s step or a turn with a subtle movement that has to occur ahead of the sounding beat. This means you really need to know the music — to be a great dancer you have to know the repertoire, thousands of songs! If I ever teach conducting, I will have to include tango as part of the mandatory curriculum.

Being born in Europe and debuting as a conductor there, what special perspective or insight do you bring to the role of artistic director of an American symphony?

I imagine mostly in terms of repertoire, specific pieces I was exposed to and discovered abroad. I suppose my approach to music making might be a little different because of my background. To conduct is to show a very personal side of yourself to the orchestra and the audience, so mine is a mix between European and American.

Beyond working with the Asheville Symphony, what attracts you to joining the Asheville community?

I live next to a national forest in Montana, so the proximity to mountains and nature is very appealing. More than that, though, I am really impressed by the Asheville community, this fascinating melting pot of backgrounds, thoughts and ideas. The local music scene is incredible — I had a chance to catch a couple of great shows at the Isis [Music Hall] and The Grey Eagle. It is always inspiring to make music in such a creative place.


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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