We continue our week of episodes recorded in front of an audience at The Overlook Live with Asheville Symphony Orchestra music director Darko Butorac.
We talk about how the orchestra pivoted this season after city officials deemed Thomas Wolfe Auditorium uninhabitable because of outdated and nonfunctional infrastructure. I ask why this orchestra only performs monthly programs and why he and other symphonic orchestra directors don’t look to collaborate more with contemporary rock (special nod to Tool) and pop composers.
Photo by Meredith Katz.
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Matt Peiken: Darko, when you first learned that the orchestra would have to make do in other venues, What did you do?
What was your first reaction, artistically, organizationally, how did you feel and think?
Darko Butorac: My feeling always when crisis presents in life is it's easy to get gloomy and focus on the negative. And every cloud has a silver lining. And I think, in a way, we've come out of the whole crisis in a silver cloud, as opposed to just a silver lining.
Matt Peiken: Explain that a little bit.
Darko Butorac: You asked me what's the first thing that we did. The state of the Thomas Wolfe... As the only permanent tenant of the venue we were well aware of the things that were Needed and were a shortcoming for many years thomas wolfe had actually closed twice before it just happened to be during the pandemic that they were not operational and then in 2018 it was during the summer.
Only two acts were affected. So the public really You know, doesn't see that side. The auditorium, is maintained and the staff there do a great job with the resources they have. But as we know major capital improvements were not able to be done in previous decades. And so, the symphony looked out and made a point to explore alternative venues and beginning actually with the end of the pandemic in 2021, we performed in Diana Wortham for our recorded distanced show.
So we explored this venue. We had concerts at Central United Methodist. And then this last spring, fortuitously, we had a concert at First Baptist Church of Asheville. And so as soon as that happened, We had already experiences that we could draw on, and With all venues, seating size is the issue.
Diana Wortham is approximately 550 seats in the big theater. The Central United Methodist, I want to say, is about 750, 800 seats. And then First Baptist Church of Asheville is largest at about 900, 950, depending how many seats are used.
Matt Peiken: Versus Thomas wolfe, where is that?
Darko Butorac: 2, 600 capacity.
Matt Peiken: Huge difference.
It's a huge difference. And not that you fill Thomas Wolfe every concert, but there's a lot you can do with that.
Darko Butorac: No, but once a year, like when we have Béla Fleck that concert sells out and actually helps make up the financial challenges for us. Okay. The three venues we looked at, and the first response when I heard about the air conditioning system failing and looking that this is going to be not just a short term I said, let's look into extending the stage at First Baptist Church of Asheville.
And in the spring we performed in the regular space where the altar is, and we were able to field an orchestra of approximately 35 to 40 players. The Asheville Symphony on a typical concert employs between 65 and 70 musicians. And... I cannot stress enough how wonderful it was working with the leadership at First Baptist Church.
They were incredibly cooperative and over the summer we built a stage extension, which allows us to field the entire orchestra. So it's about Instead of the space, let's say, between the woodwinds and strings being 10 feet, it is now 25 feet total. And that new space is not only space for musicians, but has done another amazing thing.
It's made out of wood. It's a giant, resonating wood box. And we had the first concert this weekend. The orchestra has never sounded this good. And I would hazard to say even in its history, because we've never been able to field the entire orchestra in a resonant space. I feel like a kid in a candy store.
My musicians are leaving concerts beaming with smiles ear to ear. The audience tells me, We never knew you could sound like this. This sounds completely different. And I say,
Matt Peiken: It's no secret that acoustic issues have long plagued Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, not to mention the greater hall beyond it, the now Harris Cherokee Center.
So knowing that, and I'm sure you anticipated that there would be an acoustic boost. What has this mandated from the orchestra's standpoint in terms of what needs to happen If Thomas Wolfe is repaired, slash renovated, slash replaced.
Darko Butorac: That's a very long term view. I think currently we're looking at the short term mainly, which is that every concert now basically ends up costing 20, 000 more.
And we're coming out of a balanced budget. The reason why is we're doing two performances to have our audience come. And as I mentioned, that's 1800 seats
Matt Peiken: Yeah, so let's be clear. So you're performing a Saturday matinee in addition to the Saturday evening concert? In addition So talk more
about the cost.
Darko Butorac: The cost is, the cost of the extra service is approximately 20, 000 when it's all said and done. So seven concerts, it adds up quickly. Those are not just for our musicians, but also for the soloists and, It takes resources to run the venue for the concert as well. So that is the difficult challenge and what we're focused on organizationally is to find ways to go forward and find ways to balance our budget and be be profitable during a period that's going to be very difficult for us.
I love that you started this conversation earlier saying how we're both risk takers and we like doing different things. And right now it's very exciting because we have to think outside of the box, what kind of projects can we do to protect what we have. It's always easy with any problem in life just to say let's cut it.
And let's cut the orchestra down, do a chamber orchestra series, this kind of stuff. We want to protect what we have, which is a beautiful series of wonderful classical music in downtown Asheville over these seven concerts. How can we find projects outside that will help be profitable, that will help sustain the Asheville Symphony during the period that we don't have access to a performance
Matt Peiken: You're talking about projects outside. The Symphony Orchestra already does Alt aso, which is we do a series that you undertook when you talk about extra things, are you talking about those kinds of things?
Darko Butorac: Those will certainly continue for listeners and our audience here who may not know, Alt ASO is concerts that are taken outside of the traditional venues.
We've performed at Highland Brewing, we've performed The Orange Peel. Orange Peel, Grove Park Inn different locations in town. The Masonic Temple, and that's going to be this season's... The Masonic Temple is coming up this year, that's a big one this year. And those are smaller ensembles that usually feature on a guest artist.
And we custom arrange repertoire, and it's not tied to classical music. It's tied to all music, literally. Because, what's the difference? In the words of Duke Ellington there's two types of music. Good and the other one right
Matt Peiken: So this is something that I wondered I moved here from bigger cities where they there are orchestras that perform every week of the season and Asheville has seemed like to me and a city that could support an Orchestra that has more concerts and when I looked at the schedule, yes, they're performing two concerts of every program. It's not just one opportunity to see the orchestra. Even if you performed one weekend a month, and I was wondering, why is it just a Saturday concert? Why can't it be a Friday night concert and a Saturday night concert and a Sunday matinee?
Is the city just too small to support an orchestra like that?
Darko Butorac: Actually, I think the first thing that unfortunately gives the answer no to that question is venue. So Sunday concerts, because we're in a church, are not practical. Now the interesting thing is musicians of the Asheville Symphony, many of them are based in Asheville, but many of them come from outside, from further afield.
And this is the life for most I would say most professional orchestras in the country have this model where The musicians are not full time members, employees of the symphony. Rather every weekend, they're playing with a different orchestra, and they cobble a living with a balance of performance versus teaching versus other activities.
And so as a result the orchestra schedule standard in the country generally is Wednesday through Saturday. Monday and Tuesday leave opportunity for players to do teaching and earn different types of income. And also have, maybe have a break. Maybe that's their weekend if they're playing Sundays at church or doing something else.
Or if they're teaching at university, which many of our players in the Asheville Symphony do their lessons can be loaded up on those two days so that they have the evening free to come to play with an orchestra. So there's a cultural pattern in the industry which dictates it. So in our case, our rehearsal schedule, we start on Wednesday night, our first rehearsal.
We have one rehearsal on Thursday night. The soloist arrives on Thursday evening. Friday afternoon is the rehearsal with the soloist. Friday evening is the dress rehearsal, and then two concerts on Saturday.
So it's a lot of playing between Friday and Saturday. The musicians are doing a total of nine hours of playing in a 36 hour period. Oh, my gosh. Friends, that is incredibly fatiguing. Wow. My, my hat goes off to everybody in the orchestra for truly...
Matt Peiken: So beyond the acoustic boost that you're getting, how is this season informing what you think the orchestra will do regardless of where you're performing seasons going forward?
Darko Butorac: Oh, it's very exciting. You know, As I mentioned, Wednesday is the first rehearsal night. So last Wednesday, exactly a week ago, I got to the hall, and I'm setting up the chairs with our operations team, and we're trying to find, can we actually fit everything on stage? Because it's all great, doing math in your head, but people need space.
How much space exactly for a string player versus a woodwind player? you can't really know until you get in the space. And this hall at First Baptist Church of Asheville is basically able to field about 85 to 90 percent of the repertoire. So repertoire changes are not an issue. The only change on the season we've had, that we had to make, was with our concert involving the Asheville Symphony Chorus.
The piece was too big to fit both the chorus and the orchestra on the same stage, so the chorus for this season will be performing with us here in Diana Wortham will be performing at Haydn's St. Nicholas Mass with them in February. So that's the only change that had to happen. But now October is a month when season planning begins for all orchestra in full earnest, and the first thing I'm thinking about is, Here's this new space.
What are things that we could do outside of the box? What would sound good in there that would never sound good in a hall like Thomas Wolfe? Obviously, pieces that maybe are in smaller forces and need resonance to speak and be connected with the audience are top of mind.
One thought that came to my mind this weekend was, Maybe we should look at Bach, An Evening of Bach, because that's a composer that really doesn't work. We performed the Bach double concerto a couple of years ago. It literally could not be heard past the first 20 rows in Thomas Wolfe. So these are things that I'm thinking about.
There's also an organ in the church. It's not the best instrument in the world. But, it's not a pipe organ, is it? It's a pipe organ. It isn't it is a pipe organ. It needs it, it, it's... I wouldn't say it's in the best shape, but it's usable, certainly. So, like, Are there pieces that organ could take part in?
That would be a cool experience for the audience to experience. These are the things that, that come to me. Another thought that, that came this weekend in a suggestion of a friend was what about works by Garibaldi? Garibaldi was a Venetian composer who composed for St.
Mark's Cathedral. And specifically he wrote brass pieces that use the acoustic space of the cathedral and spread them out spatially across the space. So would that be something that, that we could explore? I'm going to think about it. I really feel like a kid in a candy store right now.
Matt Peiken: Does First Baptist and perhaps even other churches, cathedrals, open up space for chamber works?
I mean, you're a symphonic orchestra. Sure. I'm wondering if that's something to even get more intimate.
Darko Butorac: Let me be very specific. Chamber orchestra. Yes Chamber music, string quartets, things like that, we have the chamber music series in Asheville.
And they do that really well. So we are good partners. We don't want to step on their toes. That is their market. But, if there's an opportunity to illuminate a big concert with a solo recital or something like that we're open to that idea. And that's what's happening this spring with the residency of Noah Bendix-Balgley, who is I don't know if our listeners know, but he's the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Literally the leader of the best orchestra in the world is from Asheville. And so we're so excited to bring him back and work with him. I'm just thrilled about that project in particular.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, you've been music director now for five seasons and not counting the dark pandemic year. You've seen this city, you've come to know this city.
Does it matter where you perform your classical music, beyond the venue itself? Would you be programming differently in, say, Knoxville or Greenville or Kansas City or Minot, North Dakota? And you've been to Missoula, Montana. You're a music director in Missoula, Montana. You're a music director still in Tallahassee.
Yes. What's different about programming for the Asheville Symphony?
Darko Butorac: Oh, that's a great question, Matt. That's why I asked it. I actually, I think Asheville more than more than even Missoula. Missoula wants to be mini Portland, but it's not. Not quite yet. And Asheville is far more eclectic in its tastes, in everything that people get excited about.
And for me, I think, actually, if I had to summarize it, I don't think there's one taste in Asheville. Which, actually, from a music director's perspective, is very exciting, because I think we can present crazy projects that there is a market for. There are people who will come out. This last spring, yes, everybody knows Bela Fleck, so that's easy to sell.
But we did a concert with Kishi Bashi, who is a Japanese American violinist Yeah, we have a fan. All right. That was great. I was there. I loved it That was one of my favorite performances of the year number one incredible musician beautiful charts. He wrote his own charts. They're so well written Mike Savino tall tall trees was there as a co guest artist.
And that was at salvage station It was a salvage station outside half the audience is the symphony usuals half the people are in the mosh pit I mean it was i'm like this Is Asheville. This is Asheville. And this is what's actually very exciting to take note about and to think about programming that way.
Can we find other opportunities to collaborate in such a way? Because I really think that people love music in this town. And I think the symphony orchestra Unfairly gets a poor reputation in popular culture as being a place that's not welcoming. It is absolutely welcoming. Trust me we're just people.
We love playing music and we love playing our kind of music. Who cares, what it is, what it sounds like. Every, everybody's got their own niche. The main thing is we do it with quality, we do it, So when you come, you feel something. That's what great music does. And for me, Kishi Bashi did that as much as the Brahms Symphony did this weekend.
I was just as excited with both performances.
Matt Peiken: One of the things I talked to you about years ago, and I asked you, and I still want to see happen, and I don't know why more orchestras don't do this. Why they don't avail themselves of composers who are working in contemporary rock music, hip hop, other music, and commission Pieces or interpretations of their music or new music.
I know there are Bryce and Aaron Desner of the National. They have done stuff with the Cincinnati Symphony because they're from Cincinnati. There are other composers, singularly Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, who has composed classical music unto himself. Why can't Asheville or why isn't Asheville or other symphony orchestras working directly with some of these Composers who don't work in classical music to help broaden the universe of classical music and by extension, the fan base of classical music.
Darko Butorac: That's a, a great question, and I think I have an answer for you. When you go to a Radiohead concert, do you expect to hear a symphony orchestra?
Matt Peiken: No, but that's with an asterisk.
Darko Butorac: Likewise, my question has been an asterisk. And it's part of the expectation of promise of what you're doing. And it all comes down to finances and money.
The symphony orchestra, the arts, performing arts in general, it's all about surviving and making your budget balanced and not completely going bankrupt.
Matt Peiken: Is it, but before you continue that thought, and I don't want to interrupt that, but are orchestras on that precipice of being solvent or going bankrupt?
Darko Butorac: Some are. Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in Ontario closed their doors less than a week before their opening night without telling their musicians. And they're bankrupt. And it is tragic. It's 50 musicians who depended on their livelihood in that town. Full time salaries, full time members.
Nothing. No explanation. Just doors closed. But I think that's where creativity and adaptation really matters. I don't think you can just be your grandpa's, symphony orchestra. You have to think. So back to the question, radiohead. So it's an economic issue actually, and it stems from the subscription model.
So if you think about it, if you, if anywhere in the world currently. Subscription model is what allows for cash flow in an orchestra. It's what allows the orchestra to be able to have a budget, to have funds, and to be able to, count on what works, what doesn't.
Matt Peiken: Meaning selling season tickets.
Darko Butorac: Meaning selling season tickets, exactly. That subscription was rooted in the European traditional repertoire. since the founding of the Symphony Orchestra as an institution in North America. That's changing now. But if your budget is basically balanced, losing 20 percent of your audience because you don't deliver on the promise of what is expected is a great risk to take.
And I think many symphony orchestras have a really difficult time taking that risk. I think we've struck a nice balance. With our programming, that we can push that risk, like Kishi Bashi, like Bela Fleck, actually. Bela Fleck would have been considered an outright pops concert about 20 years ago. Why?
Matt Peiken: Why has it evolved to now it's not?
Darko Butorac: I think tastes are changing, and we're able to change that. It's a generational change. Younger people have different tastes, and aren't, it's not just about Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky anymore.
Matt Peiken: So you think what I was, hungering to see, might be beyond the budget capabilities of most orchestras, but yet working with some of these musicians who do cross over into other genres, there are ways to do that within a more financially feasible way, whether it's they are reimagining their own music and want to bring it to an orchestra.
Or the way you did it with Kishi Bashi and...
Darko Butorac: It really is fine. It's being creative. And that's why actually most of our creativity happens outside of the masterworks. We keep the masterworks. I think it's explain the
masterworks a little bit. So I should say every, with the subscription model, the Masterworks series is orchestras that basically are playing music written specifically for orchestra and most of it is written, is older music.
By composers who are, the height of the repertoire is late 19th century. That's what's probably most performed in symphony orchestras worldwide. Of course there's new pieces, new music. But, these are composers that have a niche following that are not well known like popular music is nowadays.
It's not Taylor Swift overture. Maybe we should call her and ask her. Will that happen someday? You saw how much her boyfriend got attention this weekend. I think, you know, maybe it's...
Matt Peiken: Let me ask you along that. Are there ways to take existing music that aren't in the canon of classical music and make them classical music?
Darko Butorac: You could. I'm not sure it does service to the original music. If, I could, I'm sure I could commission and make a theme and variations on Yesterday by the Beatles, for example. But does, is that better than yesterday? No, it isn't.
Matt Peiken: Who says it has to be better necessarily but it could be creative, a reinterpretation.
There's a band called Tool. Okay. They are a nineties to even to today. They're a heavier band. And I have long heard a suite of their music done by classical music. Okay. A classical orchestra. And if I were. Somebody like Nico Muhly or somebody else who could compile could rearrange music.
I would do that Why isn't that being done? Because it wouldn't cost an orchestra a lot of money necessarily to do If you were to take tools Repertoire and make a suite of music that lasted 45 minutes You would have an international story I love it. It would be done. It would be, you'd have all kinds of press.
You'd have, you'd sell out Thomas Wolfe. I just don't know why that's not being done.
Darko Butorac: The reason it's not happening Matt, I think is with large orchestras, it's a kind of project that they're not interested in.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. You mean an old guard.
Darko Butorac: There's an old guard. A little bit. I shouldn't generalize.
It really, there, it's not black and white. But Larger orchestras it's harder to do those things. Your donors, you have your, your musicians are in the union. You can't just, bring a combo off the street and say, you guys are playing this. And then there's, the things are they're very kind of stiff elements of the model that prevent that kind of creativity at large levels.
Now we could do that. But then, I ask, how? Let's take this project. The band is called Tool? Yes. We would have to find time to reach out to Tool, hope they pick up the phone, present, we're a, an orchestra in Western North Carolina in the mountains, and we're interested in making an album of music.
Would you be interested? Okay, maybe they say yes. Then you get into the legal side. It's, how do you get permission to actually do the music? Rights for anything which is under copyright are tremendously expensive. Even to do a small pop song can cost 500 to 1, 000. That's not recording, that's just performing it.
So the element of rights and recording are very difficult. We faced this starkly during COVID when we were trying to stream music. We had to be very careful not to include music that was that had difficult copyright elements around it because we couldn't afford the licensing, we couldn't afford that element.
When the, we have the resources, it's not interesting. When you want to do it, there's the resource element becomes prohibitive. I think bottom line for Asheville, we do try to think outside of the box. We're always trying to think how can we bring what we do best to the largest area.
of our community, the largest number of people. How can we expand? And Alt. A. S. O. Was part of that. What other orchestra can say that, they did a concert with, both with the former Phantom from the tour, that we had a Gypsy Brass Band ensemble melded with New Orleans Jazz.
The creativity is there. It's just... One little step at a time, and that's how we build a new audience. Which I think is what is most important.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, you mentioned to me before we sat in our seats that the city has at least committed or expressed deep interest in a real substantive repair of Thomas Wolfe, or renovation.
Can you talk about this, what you learned?
Darko Butorac: Yeah yesterday at City Council of Asheville, there was a public working meeting. They, it was the first time that the issues of Thomas Wolfe were presented with some options of how to solve this. And of course, the band aid is necessary for the facility to function in the short term.
But the beautiful thing that, that I was impressed by was that City Council looked at the different options that range from do nothing, to Basically build the best performing arts center in North America. And really focused their gaze on solutions that would transform Thomas Wolfe into something that I think we as a community would be very proud of.
And that is that... A theater that could accommodate somewhere close to 2, 000 seats and basically be a home for arts performances acoustic music, talks dance, all kinds of things that we don't get currently in the community.
Matt Peiken: It would be a more versatile Thomas Wolfe than we have now.
Darko Butorac: We have to remember Thomas Wolfe was not constructed as a a versatile hall or a hall for concerts even, I would say. I have a great analogy. So a great concert hall is a shoebox. This is tested. This is like anywhere you go, if you have a shoebox, it works. Thomas Wolfe, in its current configuration, unfortunately, is an Amazon Prime box that has had its bottom squished in.
And the sound in the hall is very problematic. That's why it has poor acoustics. So I think if, of course this is a long road ahead. There's a lot of work to be done. It will take a village. It's not going to be one person or one organization pushing this. We'll have to find a coalition of people who are passionate about this.
the arts, we're passionate about the future of downtown Asheville and bring them together to, to make this vision a reality. But I think it really would be transformative. And I, of course I have my music director hat as the, the symphony guy. But I'm thinking of being a citizen in, in this town.
There is so much of performing arts that we don't have an opportunity to see because that sweet spot of... About 2 000 seats really allows for different projects to take place I
Matt Peiken: hope you save me a seat, and two seats at your next first baptist concert I want to come would love to pictures and exhibition.
I you so much everybody.
Darko Butorac: Thank you. Thank you