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With a sustained finale, heavy on percussion, Darko Butorac ended his time with the Missoula Symphony Orchestra in dramatic fashion.

The piece was the fourth symphony by David Maslanka, a Missoula-based composer who died in 2017. In a tribute, Butorac and a collaborator painstakingly transcribed the work for strings from its original wind ensemble arrangement. It will now be available for orchestras around the world to play.

The two concerts last weekend, played to nearly 2,400 people in the Dennison Theatre, made for "a bittersweet but ultimately joyous experience," Butorac said afterward. It was fulfilling to hear the culmination of months of work, but "the response of the audience to the piece is what really mattered," he said. They'd played it through in rehearsal already, he noted, yet the music isn't really alive without an audience in the hall.

Setting the bar high

The Serbian-born music director was 29 years old in 2007 when he came to Missoula, where he quickly became a personality known around town on a first-name basis, a walking rejoinder to cliches about classical music being stuffy or unapproachable.

When he came here, he didn't have expectations of staying for 12 years. In his field, he said it's not realistic to have too many notions about how long you might stay in a job.

Many audience members and symphony leaders weren't surprised when he was hired as the music director at the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, a step forward that he credits to his time here.

"I certainly wanted to challenge myself and grow myself as a musician, and being in the Missoula Symphony job has really helped me do that," he said.

As he does now, when he arrived he kept his goals simple, or at least simply stated: "Improve the quality of the orchestra and deepen the impact of classical music in the community, whether that's more people or more people being excited, or both," he said.

On the first goal, he and the symphony played many pieces that musicians never thought they'd perform in Missoula.

Concert master Margaret Baldridge, who's been with the symphony for 27 years, reeled off a few: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or Mahler's epic Symphony No. 2, which can run to nearly an hour and a half.

By Butorac's count, he's led 60 masterworks concerts, which center on a classic work.

Over that time, he's followed his philosophy of pursuing incrementally higher challenges. "You set a bar that's a little beyond them, [and] no matter what, the results are better than they otherwise would be," he said.

Baldridge, who has a doctorate and teaches violin and viola at the University of Montana, said Butorac was meticulous in that way. Teaching the orchestra was like teaching a student: give them pieces that expand their knowledge and technique.

"He was really teaching the orchestra how to be a better orchestra together," she said. "It was really step by step over the 12 years that he was with us."

During the final concert last Sunday, he repeatedly turned the audience's many standing ovations back to the orchestra. He even reminded them that not all of its members are full-time professionals, yet they consistently "punch above their weight." They range from pros like Baldridge to high school music teachers, either current or retired, UM students, or community members who might have studied in college but aren't professionals.

"Some of the programs we do are very challenging," he said. For instance, with Maslanka's symphony they had four full rehearsals before it was quite literally premiered — meaning there aren't recorded references for the string players about how their parts "should" sound.

"Those are high goals to meet for musicians who have other lives, who have their professions, who do music as a way of expressing love for the art form. It's not their bread and butter. Or for musicians who are young, like students who are inexperienced and don't have much experience in orchestras, it's kind of like going through a gauntlet for them," he said.

The time in Missoula was key for him, too, in his development as a conductor.

"Any time that you have a chance to do repertoire, you improve. Experience is the best teacher in my profession. You have to understand that unlike other musicians, we don't have a chance to really go into a practice room and hone our craft. What I can do at home is study. I study, study, study, but it never tells me what it's actually like when I move my hands and the orchestra responds to that motion. That's literally learned over thousands of hours of conducting in front of orchestras, and learning how ensembles respond to your gestures, and what works and what doesn't," he said.

Building community

Butorac is also the music director at the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra. Cellist Adam Collins played there for three years before moving to Missoula in August, and is now the principal player on his instrument. Earlier in his career, Collins was a full-time freelance musician and played with about seven orchestras in the area.

He said Butorac is one of the best conductors he's worked with. He's consistently well prepared, rehearses efficiently, has strong ideas and isn't afraid to try new things.

During the rehearsal week for the Maslanka symphony, Butorac was exchanging notes with the composer's son, Matthew, who lives in New York. Before the dress rehearsal, he approached Collins and said he was switching a solo to cello. It wasn't a demanding solo, Collins said, but the move illustrates the care they were putting into the creation of an impactful translation.

Collins said the Missoula audience's enthusiasm under Butorac's time isn't common. The orchestra here plays to a nearly full house with two concerts per weekend, while many symphonies in larger cities only perform one.

The Symphony in the Park has grown during his time, and the Holiday Pops concert has three dates instead of two.

"We want to excite them and take them to places they didn't expect to have gone, and so I think ultimately what's special about making music in Missoula is the community we make it for," Butorac said.

At the send-off on Sunday, one of his friends from a regular basketball game made a joke about how everyone in the room likes him enough that they were there, at the hotel, rather than at home watching the season premiere of "Game of Thrones."

It's a good joke that landed well, but it has a point. Any time the symphony plays, people could, in fact, be at home watching a fantasy epic, or any of the myriad forms of entertainment available on demand.

When Butorac was hired, he said that conductors need to be accessible, out in the community, getting people excited about "the greatest music ever written."

And he doesn't care for the term "advocacy."

"I think of it more of sharing passion," he said. "I think in this day and age, we're surrounded by too much information to have passion sometimes. And it's easy to be distracted sometimes. Days will go by with phones and with screens, and I think everybody enjoys an opportunity to get out of that mayhem," he said.

We can get that escape through nature — living in Montana has broadened his outdoor interests — or through art and culture, "sharing an event where we are in the moment and present and surrounded by beauty with people who are our neighbors, our friends, our community, is really special."

Sharing that passion, then, is an important part of being a conductor to him.

"And for me, it's not a job, it's just who I am. I'd do it anyway," he said.

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