This weekend's concerts are a "beautiful, fitting program to end my tenure on," said Darko Butorac, the artistic director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra.
The program, titled "Last Best Place," features a line-up of Missoula composers, along Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Planning began more than a year and a half ago, before Butorac knew that he'd be accepted as the music director at the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina.
And so he'll close out a nearly 12-year tenure in which he was widely credited with improving the symphony's quality and audience turn-out with a tribute to Montana.
The Missoula composers are the late David Maslanka, who's known around the world for his wind ensemble compositions; Donald O. Johnston, a composer who taught music at the University of Montana for 30 years; and Scott Billadeau, a UM alumnus and trained composer (who also owns Liquid Planet).
Maslanka's Fourth Symphony
Performing this work, which Butorac called a masterpiece by a great American composer who made Missoula his home, has been a long project.
The late composer, who died in 2017 at age 73, wrote more than 150 compositions, including nine symphonies, during his career. While they were played around the world, he lived in western Montana and raised a family here. He was especially active and respected for his work writing for wind ensembles, although he wrote for myriad different configurations.
He did not, however, write this symphony for orchestra, but for wind ensemble. To make this performance possible, Butorac and composer Konstantin Blagojevic painstakingly transcribed the work. It was an "enormous" undertaking, Butorac said, since the symphony spans about a thousand measures for 35 to 50 instruments, some of which aren't in the traditional orchestra. It was overseen by Maslanka's son, Matthew, who is a professional musician and leads the Maslanka Foundation, which oversees the composer's catalog. He said it's rare that they allow his father's work to be adapted in this way.
Now that it's been transcribed, it will be available for orchestras around the world. Butorac called it a way to honor "one of America's great composers who made Missoula his home."
The symphony marks a pivotal point in Maslanka's personal and musical development, Matthew Maslanka said in a phone interview from New York.
His father was tenured at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and "getting to the end of his rope" trying to balance teaching, composing and raising a family. He and his wife moved their three children to Missoula for a fresh start in 1990.
"In Missoula, Dad found a wonderful kinship with the natural world," Matthew Maslanka said. He loved the Blue Mountain area, and his connection with the landscape began to influence his work.
Long daily walks were a "major sorting tool" for all of his ideas to "filter themselves out and show their true nature." He also began studying a collection of Bach chorales, and would play and sign one of the minute-long pieces as warm-up exercise before writing.
The Fourth Symphony was a "major turning point," his son said. His admiration of the chorales, simple melodies, clear harmonic language and an almost pastoral flavor all came together, he said. In contrast, some prior works were more angry and dissonant, he said, and reflected a period of depression that Maslanka eventually overcame.
It was also a mainstream hit for the composer. It's been recorded at least nine times, so it's easily his most popular work alongside "Give Us This Day," and "confirmed his position as a major wind composer at the time," his son said.
Besides the Bach chorales, Maslanka was inspired by the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln and a praise hymn, the Old 100th, that was played as his funeral train crossed the country.
He said the piece is "essentially a long dream. It doesn't necessarily have an overarching structure like you'd expect, but it's episodic" and flows through its sources naturally.
Maslanka was fascinated by "radical simplicity," such as the way Beethoven built his the first movement of his Fifth Symphony from the unforgettable opening statement. Likewise, Maslanka's Fourth opens with a horn solo, "almost unbelievably simple," his son said, then flows through the chorale melodies, a major statement with the Old 100th.
"The piece draws its power from the simplicity of these ancient melodies and these deeply rooted, powerful sources of energy that are at the core of our understanding of Western music," Matthew Maslanka said. "He takes that energy and allows it to find its own heart content," he said.
A middle section has a jazz-like structure that shows his dad's sense of humor. Matthew Maslanka said his father wrote pages and pages of musical sketches that he would comb through as he worked on a new piece, and had the technical acumen to weave disparate parts together when he something to spoke to him.
"By the end there's such an overwhelming sense of triumph, finality, awesome power, that you can't help but jump out of your seat," he said.
Butorac said it's a rare opportunity, and that most people likely haven't heard the piece live before.
Outside of Missoula, Maslanka said his father's work is played several hundred times a year — that they know of. Some pieces like the Saxophone Sonata are standards and likely performed hundreds of times a a year that they don't know about.
The guest soloist on the Dvorak is Amit Peled, an Israeli-born cellist, who has performed on stages around the world, and has come to Missoula over the years for performances with both the MSO and the String Orchestra of the Rockies. He'll play on Dvorak's Cello Concerto, which Butorac said is "the showpiece for the instrument."
Peled's playing is "always very free and incredibly impressive, and it's just a joy to make music with him."
Butorac paired the Maslanka symphony with two shorter works: a set of Symphonic Variations by Donald Johnston, a former longtime music professor at the University of Montana. Johnston wrote his fourth symphony in 1961, according to the program notes by Joe Nickell, and these variations are drawn from one movement. Butorac said the performance this weekend is a great way to honor his legacy in Missoula.
Maslanka and Johnston were both teachers for Billadeau. The composer, former UM professor and the owner of Liquid Planet, wrote the piece that's used as the title piece for the "Last Best Place" concert.
Billadeau transcribed the piece for orchestra himself. It was originally written for solo piano.
In his program notes, Billadeau describes it as "a tone poem that celebrates the great state of Montana, with its rugged mountains, bustling streams, open valleys and prodigious lakes. It also honors those who live here and the unique blend of individualism within a shared community."
Butorac said he's put all his energy right now toward this last performance, and to "have time to spend with my musicians and make something meaningful for the last time."