" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Talented Mr. Christie

This profile of Colorado Music Festival Music Director Michael Christie first appeared in Muso magazine's summer 2005 issue.

A regular guy.
That’s the impression Michael Christie makes the first time you see him. In fact, that’s a fundamental truth about him. In a profession not exactly conducive to the cultivation of a laid-back personality, one strewn with divas and dictators, this youthful conductor is disarmingly relaxed. Congenial. Unpretentious. Dare we say, even, nondescript?
Yet underneath that lies an essential reserve, a piercing intelligence and a quiet authority that complements his aw-shucks, Jimmy Stewart demeanor. Matched with his keen musical sensibilities, the sum total of these qualities makes him one of America’s leading young possessors of the podium.
“I’m inspired by the challenge of not being the ‘know-it-all’ conductor,” he says with a grin.
We meet at a homey yet well-appointed restaurant in the heart of Boulder, Colorado. Clad in jeans, loafers, and a sweater, his dark head of hair neatly trimmed, he looks like just one of the hundreds of graduate students who pedal the streets of this picturesque, health-conscious university town, which sits nestled at the foot of the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.
Here Christie is busily preparing an intense six-week summer season of Colorado Music Festival concerts. Christie has served as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Festival since 2000, beating out a number of competitors for the position at the tender age of 25.
Burdened during his first few seasons at the CMF with the reputation of a wunderkind, his impeccable musicianship, mature manner, imaginative programming and ambitious out reach efforts have overcome all of his audience’s possible apprehensions. In 2001, he also assumed the role of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Queensland Orchestra, a position he relinquishes this fall as he takes over as the Music Director of the Phoenix (Arizona) Symphony.
Top this off with a continuing rush of guest-conductor appearances around the world that include forays into ballet and opera, including works as diverse as “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Adams’ “The Death of Klinghofer.” Isn’t it all too much at times?
“This trajectory doesn’t feel extreme,” he exclaims brightly before digging into a veggie burger. “It doesn’t feel unplanned, certainly. I have incredible support – family, friends, colleagues. They look after me.”
Christie’s first exposure to the world of classical music in his childhood home in Buffalo, New York, a town almost tragically far from the towers and concert halls of Manhattan, came from a hilariously lowbrow source.
“It was ‘Hooked on Classics,’ actually,” he admits with a laugh, referring to the famously cheesy and immensely popular classical compilation album of the mid-’80s. “That’s how I got to know anything, actually.”
Something about it grabbed his ear, and his parents supported his interest.
“My parents started taking us to Buffalo Philharmonic concerts once a month, and then I started going myself,” he says. Fortunately, the orchestra was helmed at that time by baton-wielders such as Julius Rudel, Semyon Bychkov and Maximiano Valdes. This fascination led to him dedicating his life to music, taking a degree in trumpet performance at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. All the while, though, conducting was in the back of his mind.
His principal conducting mentors were Franz Welser-Most and Robert Spano. The turning point for Christie came when he entered the First International Sibelius Conductor’s Competition in Helsinki in 1995. He was awarded a special prize for Outstanding Potential, and shortly after was invited to become an apprentice conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Even today, he bears a special fondness for Finland’s culture, landscape and musical contributions.
“There’s a respectful pride in their national character,” he says, “but beneath that there’s a fire in the belly. That’s apparent in their music – an understated grandeur that brings to my mind those beautiful stretches of pine and birch forest there… the society is tight-knit but diverse. I love their care for individuals, for education, for families.”
Under the tutelage of Daniel Barenboim, Christie’s expertise grew by leaps and bounds, and his directorates have taken him into yet another realm – the complex responsibility of shaping an ensemble, establishing an aesthetic regimen and direction, juggling a myriad of administrative tasks, and, of key interest for Christie, developing and satisfying the audience.
First and foremost, however, is the stick work, and in that the maestro is assured beyond his years. I have been fortunate to observe him for several seasons both in concert and rehearsal in Boulder. These take place in the cavernous confines of Chautauqua Auditorium, a barn-like wooden venue overlooking Boulder that was constructed in 1898, through which swallows swoop during performances. Christie throws open the orchestra’s rehearsals to the public, and sometimes upwards of 100 people can be found in the worn wooden seats on a weekday morning, soaking up the sound.
His primary asset is clarity – there is no ambiguity or hesitancy in his communication with his musicians, and they respond to this with precision and commitment (“an orchestra can be such a dry machine,” he says). Often, this deceptively simple ability to go straight to the essence of the task at hand seems to free the ensemble, giving it the time and space to find depths and emphases that it might not under a less certain leader. A revelatory performance of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony last year, for instance, overcame the composer’s lumbering, logy tendencies with ease.
“You don’t have too many chances to convince people to make this music a part of their lives,” Christie says of his warm and direct style. “They must be instantly engaged.”
The travels that are a necessary part of the life of an aspiring conductor don’t faze him; he speaks enthusiastically of the places and people they have brought into his purview. He gracefully sidesteps a question about what instrumental bodies might be more or less welcoming to the journeyman conductor.
“There is something of a conductors’ hotline,” he says, noting that experiences good and bad tend to get around in what he terms his fraternity. He bases his willingness to return to a given stage on what he calls “chemistry – would my next experience be a significant expansion of my abilities?”
Likewise, he rejects the idea of a cutthroat competitiveness in his chosen profession. “It’s true that sometimes people wonder, ‘Why didn’t I get that position,’ but there’s usually a good reason for it,” he says. “Also, in my work, the competitive criteria is not clear – it does not translate into anything quantitative.”
The nattily bow-tied restaurant owner stops by to check on us, and he and Christie exchange warm greetings. Christie’s easy likeability has much to do with his appeal, and it speaks well of his efforts that the CMF audience has steadily grown during his tenure.
The growth is due to many factors. First, his programming is an adroit combination of old, new, and genre-crossing musics. For instance, his CMF schedules have become notable for his well-received incorporation of visits by a number of world music ensembles, an evening a week dedicated to chamber music, forays into jazz, and cross-disciplinary collaborations with dance companies, actors, popular vocalists, and regional choruses.
Most remarkably this season is “Moving Pictures,” an evening that will pair short, original films crafted by members of the University of Colorado’s Film Studies Program and The Shootout 24-Hour Filmmaking Festival Boulder with original compositions by Mark Grey and Philip Rothman, culminating with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 thriller “The Lodger,” with the CMF Orchestra providing live accompaniment through a new score by British composer Joby Talbot.
Christie’s refusal to be crusty about high and low art is refreshing. He eloquently defends the sometimes-besmirched reputation of Boston Pops conductor and avid populist Arthur Fiedler, citing his pioneering use of free concerts and ticket packages to bring auditors into the concert hall.
However, if there is a conductor that Christie brings to mind, it is that other great popular communicator, Leonard Bernstein, whose “Young People’s Concert” telecasts from 1958 to 1972 influenced a generation. Unconsciously, he echoes Bernstein when he refers to his employ of up-and-coming soloists as “putting arms about the creative element” – witness Bernstein’s credo “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”
Christie’s openness to relative unknowns can be a burden. “I have an immense pile of scores in my garage,” he admits. “I will receive anywhere from six to 10 press packets a week from potential guest artists, and from composers, about half as many. I have such sympathy for them – it can just be overwhelming to go through them all. There are interesting discoveries to be made, though.”
Christie is proud of his commitment to audience-friendly innovations, ones that include such concert features as “Keeping Score,” programs with educational information about each composition that listeners can follow during performances, keyed to numbers that are projected above the orchestra as it plays; and “intermission insights” -- interviews and discussions among Christie, the audience and visiting soloists during concert breaks. Many times, I’ve seen him jump down into the audience on a warm summer night, microphone in hand, passing questions on to a soloist like a formally dressed talk-show host.
Christie describes these as “little things to help… the artist’s task is to break it down – to give preparation for the experience, not just the experience itself. Those who want that can have that … anybody who wants to be drawn into what we’re doing in the concert has more doors open to them than anywhere I’ve seen.”
He plans to utilize these techniques in his new position at the Phoenix Symphony as well. He looks forward to developing a relationship with his musicians over a 40-week season, and describes this opportunity as “a larger palette.”
He is confident in the abilities of its administrative staff, but he is the first to refer to the current classical scene as an industry, and makes choices and establishes priorities in line with this concept.
“To begin with, I will be conferencing with all the players, the whole orchestra,” he says, “which I don’t think many of them have ever done before. And I will ask them three things. What is your musical pedigree – your training and experience; in what way has the organization met or failed to meet your expectations; and, what can we do to support your personal and artistic growth?
“To date, orchestras have not been helping in cultivating professional development. Most of the time, you have years of intense technical training and then you are abandoned, basically. If we continue together – multi-tasking ,cross-training, doing outreach – I think we will see that this … leads to a better listening environment.”
I veer away mentally for a moment, thinking back to a conversation we had a year ago, when he spoke of his taste in non-classical music.
“Actually,” he said then, “I’ve spent some time kind of going back and trying to listen to groups that I really didn’t have a chance to listen to when I was really immersed in the development of classical music for myself ... groups I heard people talking about but never really got a chance to listen to.”
The memory prompts me to ask him if there is a style or period of music that he hasn’t fully explored yet, but wishes to. His eyes light up.
“Early music,” he exclaims. “From Byrd to earl Bach.”
He goes to say that he feels that many mainstream orchestras are reluctant to tackle late Renaissance/early Baroque works due to the intensive specialization of the genre, mastered by such groups as the Academy of Ancient Music.
“It’s not all religious in outlook, and composers such as Monteverdi are now popularly accepted. It’s music – why wouldn’t you play it?” he says.
Looking into the future, he sees what he is attempting – integrating audience participation into a traditional artistic format – as a unique contribution to the continued viability of classical music.
“Perhaps America’s contribution is to be the proving grounds of what we can do,” he says, “to open up a process we are all familiar with… This is an evolutionary process, and classical music is in a time of transition. We have to keep it creative and interesting. The shape of the orchestra may be different … who knows, we could have virtual reality, and you could put on a helmet and end up in the middle of the string section. I think that in some way each of us longs to be a part of that experience.”
Christie is banking on this basic human desire, constantly seeking ways to both stimulate and feed it, on and off the podium. His eagerness and energy shine through. Of those not yet seduced by the beauties of the music, he says:
“People are busy, not stupid. They can be sophisticated without having to be part of an elite.
And of his place in all this, he says, quietly and confidently:
“This is a good moment. I’m thankful to be around in our time.”