Out of the Darko
Tallahassee Magazine presents an interview with Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra conductor Darko Butorac
Darko Butorac’s face is as familiar to most Tallahasseans as that of a well-loved actor or, heaven-forbid, politician. But what you get when you talk to the tall, handsome conductor of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra is not an act, and it isn’t political; instead, 39-year-old Darko is a hyper-verbal, intensely intelligent, youthful dynamo of creativity whose energy and booming voice seems to draw everyone near. This magnetism was made quite evident recently, on the patio of a Lucky Goat Coffee shop, wherein he met with us to talk about his public and personal takes on music … and several Lucky Goat patrons drew up their chairs to listen.
TM: How has the TSO changed under your direction?
DB: When I arrived, we presented, at most, six concerts a year: four Master Works and a Holiday and Youth Concert. Now, five years later, we have not only an additional Master Work concert, but two Holiday shows, three series — including one featuring jazz — and the big Halloween Concert at Cascades Park that drew almost 4,000 people. Overall, we’ve grown our attendees from 5,000 to 15,000 in a very short period.
TM: Was your appearing at the Halloween performance in a Superman cape a necessary gimmick to woo an audience?
DB: I don’t think “thematic programming” is gimmicky, but rather a way to make a connection — to build a relationship with the community. Our free Open Rehearsals on the morning of our Saturday concerts are another way to invite people, especially families, into a music hall. No babysitter needed!
TM: When you select music for concerts, do you veer away from 20th century music — the kind audiences might find hard to listen to, or might find “inaccessible”? Do you stick to Beethoven and the old maestros?
DB: Actually, contemporary composers have gotten savvy. If it’s too abstract, it might be tricky for an audience. But then, even Beethoven, if heard only once, may not be love at first listening. We actually performed a piece written in 2014 that was very well received.
TM: Do you play the same concerts in your other orchestra in Missoula, Montana as you do here?
DB: No, and for two reasons: They’re different communities with different — albeit sophisticated — tastes. And also, I want to grow as a musician. In 10 years, I haven’t repeated a program, although a piece presented in Tallahassee may show up a couple of years later in Montana!
TM: How does a conductor “practice”?
DB: Ten percent of my work is the actual conducting; the other 90 percent is study. I have to know the score inside and out, but then I begin making subjective decisions. If we played only notes, objectively, it might be perfect, but without a soul. I am a “re-interpreter” of the notes: My job is to take the audience on a journey — one filled with tension, climaxes and releases.
TM: You make it sound like you are a storyteller.
DB: Exactly. I hope to make a drama in sound for the audience. My movements, in a way, model what I would like both the orchestral players and the audience to feel.
TM: How have you changed as a conductor over the years?
DB: “Less is more” is my mantra, as I become older. I began conducting at age 17; now, over twenty years later, I attempt maximum efficiency with minimal effort. What I mean is, look at Yo-Yo Ma. How does he play so fast? It’s because he uses less effort in his fingers. Nothing is forced. Of course, you must prepare!
TM: Do you have time for relaxing, for home life, for becoming inspired?
DB: Ah, well, sometimes it’s hard. I’m at home (in Montana) for only 20 weeks a year … and I have a one-year-old son now, so that is often difficult. Keeping up with my other musical love, my cello — I hate to say, I only play, now, once in a blue moon. As for inspiration, I would say nature is one avenue: being out in the air, with trees … It clears the mind. But then, seeing any kind of art passionately created inspires me, be it poetry, great paintings, dance. In fact, I dance Argentine Tango. I love it. Passionate, beautiful music that won’t let you go.
TM: You came to the United States as an immigrant from Serbia many years ago. What do you make of the current politics on immigration?
DB: I will not speak personally, but simply say that music is an international business; it crosses borders. Musicians must cross borders. For symphonies, we must prepare programs and engage soloists months to years in advance. Therefore, visa questions and backlogs impact both the musicians and the greater organization, greatly. Such uncertainty can put a season “on the line” — truly affecting the bottom line.
TM: What’s coming up in the new 2017-18 season?
DB: We actually will have an all-Beethoven program, for sure, and then something completely new! I will only say that it involves Wagner’s Ring Cycle … but reduced from the original 14 hours it took to play to only 70 minutes. It will be a totally unique multi-media presentation that I think will leave the audience thrilled.