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The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will appear with Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance troupe at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during the inaugural SHIFT Festival that runs from March 27 through April 2, 2017. (photo by Glenn Ross)

Plays Well with Others

By Brad Weismann

What a difference a decade makes. Under the poised, confident baton of its music director and conductor Michael Butterman, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra has moved out of the financial doldrums into an era of unprecedented popularity and critical recognition. One major token of this esteem is the inclusion of the ensemble in the upcoming inaugural SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C., March 27 through April 2, 2017.

“We have an identity,” says the Shreveport, La.–born maestro, who is celebrating his 10-year anniversary with the orchestra. “We’re having fun, we’re bringing energy to the concert hall, we’re responding to what the community wants—and it is responding to what we are offering.”

In a time when stereotypically “classical” orchestras are seeing a decline in attendance, orchestral music is adapting. The stodgy concept of trotting out the warhorses of the Western canon in stuffy surroundings has vaporized. In its place is a much broader palette of music and entry points for fans.

This is exemplified by the Philharmonic’s participation-winning proposal, a concert that includes a world premiere of Stephen Lias’s All the Songs that Nature Sings, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service; the contemporary mandolin concerto From the Blue Ridge, featuring its composer, Jeff Midkiff, as soloist; Steve Heitzeg’s Ghosts of the Grasslands; and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, in collaboration with Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance troupe.

The SHIFT Festival sought exemplary orchestras, regardless of size, that could create an immersive mini-residency, including educational events, symposia and community events around the D.C. area during their stay. The Philharmonic’s proposal received high praise from festival evaluators.

Infusing Music and Nature

The 76 Phil musicians, plus staff, plus Nancy Smith and seven other Frequent Flyers, along with family, friends and fans who can make the trip, will head to the nation’s capital after a March 25 presentation of the program at Macky Auditorium. And don’t forget Dave Sutherland, the orchestra’s “in-house naturalist.” What?

“I think I’m the only one in the country,” the cheery Sutherland says of his position. Sutherland, a Boulder County Parks and Open Space naturalist, has worked with the orchestra since 2013 on its “Nature and Music” series, leading musical nature hikes and relating them to the landscape—matching artistic impulse to scientific understanding.

“A request from the orchestra went out, and I saw it and I thought, ‘That’s for me!’” says Sutherland. “When we were in college, it seemed we had to choose the path of science or the humanities. Now, maybe there’s a way we can tie them together for people.” (He shares a science background with Butterman, who obtained his undergraduate degree in biochemistry.)

The SHIFT festival will feature a collaboration between Boulder participants (left to right) naturalist Dave Sutherland of Boulder County Parks and Open Space; Nancy Smith of Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance; and Michael Butterman of the Boulder Philharmonic. (photo by Janet Bracco)

Sutherland will lead nature hikes in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park as part of the week of SHIFT activities. It’s all part of a global, complex strategy to meet the specific cultural needs of the community, one that ends up exemplifying the city’s values and broadcasting them to the larger world.

“We are tying into that spirit of nature that permeates the sensibilities here,” says Butterman. “Then, there is the strong aspect of the scientific community—that curiosity, that cross-pollination between the scientific and the musical communities. And, undeniably the spiritual element.”

The key to finding out what people want, it turns out, is to plunge into their worlds and ask them. The Philharmonic has chalked up collaboration with 45 local organizations, reaching into the worlds of science, nature, social services and more. Its Discovery Concerts go into local schools. The feedback has invigorated the Philharmonic’s programming.

“We are enhanced by infusing their elements,” says Butterman. “Everybody wins—we can always use ideas.”

Connecting with the Community

Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee agrees. “Michael has really started to establish a continuity,” he says. “I think people really underrated his programming for a time. His ideas are very good, and I really like what he’s trying to do with the orchestra, connecting with the community.”

The virtuoso violinist and educator describes much of his concertmaster role as being an intermediary. “You’re really working on the nuts and bolts of how to deliver the sound you are looking for,” Wetherbee says. “You are there for auditions, you are asked about artistic matters,” he says, describing the collaborative atmosphere. “And you set the tone—you establish the decorum. You are an assertive force that others are free to react to or play with. A terrific soloist wouldn’t necessarily make a good concertmaster. You could say the definition of the temperament of a concertmaster is ‘plays nice with others.’”

In-performance collaborations with the Boulder International Film Festival, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Boulder Ballet and more leave Butterman with staging challenges at times, with patrons seated all over the stage. In the case of Appalachian Spring, Butterman didn’t get to see the Frequent Flyers choreography until recently, as it all takes place over his head while he’s conducting.

“Appalachian Spring, surprisingly, is a piece that’s very tricky,” he says. “It seems simple, but it’s not. Finally, I got to sit down and see what they were doing, and it’s wonderful.”

Intelligent Musical Menus

The Philharmonic’s programs are an innovative mix of new work and old—often with the new work first, quite the opposite of a usual approach. The respect for the intelligence of the audience distinguishes the Phil’s musical menu.

“You need to do the Brahms, because it’s good. It’s important because it’s good,” Butterman says. “And when you are performing, you must know that you are doing the most exciting and important piece in the world at that moment. There’s just so much more out there now, and it’s all relatable.”

For instance, the Philharmonic’s opening concert of the season with the innovative pianists Greg Anderson and Joy Roe, which started off with Francis Poulenc’s sarcastic, postmodern Concerto for 2 Pianos, then moved to Rachmaninoff’s knuckle-cracking, bravura Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and then back to Tchaikovsky’s safe, warm Romantic sentiments via his “Little Russian” Symphony No. 2. This is programming as generator of associations, an orchestra as thought leader, creator of new work, committed to multidisciplinary, multimedia approaches that reach out into the community.

The Philharmonic moves into its sixth decade this year. It’s had its share of leading lights—the imperious pioneer Antonia Brico, Ozzi Lehnert, Theodore Kuchar. It’s moved from an amateur ensemble to a solid, professional organization. With Butterman, it’s beginning to make footprints out in the larger world. Big footprints.

To this, Butterman says simply, “We’re Boulder’s orchestra.”


Brad Weismann is an independent writer and editor who covers everything from grand opera to midget wrestling. He’s called the Front Range home for half a century, but he’s still ambivalent about prairie dogs.