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For conductor Darko Butorac, the basic challenge of preparing the forces of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra for a concert is always the same: Smooth out the rough spots, bridge the transitions, and give the players a sense of the big picture.

"It's always about trying to figure out what the message of the composer is through the notes he put on a piece of paper," said Butorac. "I try to make it logical for the musicians so that the various elements fit together into a coherent idea that we all are working toward."

Sometimes, getting to that idea is a matter of building from the ground up. But when it comes to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it's also a matter of tearing down.

The Fifth Symphony is, after all, the classic of classics: The best-known symphony ever written, a singular work of art that has inspired not only tens of thousands of performances over the two centuries since its composition, but also myriad lampoons and tributes, from P.D.Q. Bach's hilarious sportscast-style, play-by-play recording, to the disco classic "A Fifth of Beethoven," and others.

It's a piece that most if not all of the players in the MSO have played before, or at least heard enough times that they could hum the whole thing.

That creates a unique challenge for Butorac as he prepares for this weekend's pair of performances of Beethoven's watershed work, which many credit with singularly ushering in the modern era of music.

"Certainly the performance baggage of having 200 years of history with a very popular piece is quite daunting in some ways," said Butorac. "So I just try to get everyone to go back to the basics on the page and approach it the same as I would any piece - find the way it all fits together in context, find my own little inspirations, and if I can convince myself of it, then we can make something new happen."

The key phrase in Butorac's approach is also the crux of the importance of Beethoven's symphony: "Find my own little inspirations."

For Beethoven, the key little inspiration was a simple, four-note motive on two tones - the notes that not only begin the first movement of the symphony, but comprise the entire thematic material of that movement.

In the composer's time - the time of the French Revolution and the ensuing era of individualism - Beethoven's rejection of the conventional symphonic formulas in his Fifth Symphony was both revolutionary and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the day.

"It was the first piece in the history of music to identify with our modern mindset," said Butorac. "We haven't left that; this is the age of Me - my voice matters and my choices matter. That's the message of the piece, that's why it resonates: No, I will not let some other forces guide my life, I choose what's important to me."

Of course, the basic reason why Beethoven's Symphony is so widely beloved is not philosophical.

It's visceral.

"I'm hard-pressed to name a piece that per minute delivers more to the listener," said Butorac. "This is as good as it gets - which is another reason this is still played so often. There's not a single note that's unnecessary or in the wrong place."

Such power and perfection creates other challenges for Butorac - namely, what to perform with it.

For this weekend's pair of concerts, Butorac chose two other revolutionary composers known for intensely emotional music: Giuseppe Verdi and Gustav Mahler.

The concerts will kick off with Verdi's Overture to the opera, "La Forza del Destino," the translation of which gives a hint at the red-blooded music within: "The Force of Destiny."

In that opera, says Butorac, "Verdi wanted to show that it's useless to try and avoid your preordained path in life."

Not exactly Beethoven's message. But Verdi has his own way of making a case.

So too, most certainly, does Mahler, the late 19th century conductor and composer whose First Symphony, aptly known as the "Titan," closed out the MSO's season two years ago.

If Beethoven can be credited as the composer who ushered in the so-called Romantic era - in which music became a means of expressing emotion and personal perspective - then Mahler stands as its true epitome. "My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life," he once said. "I have written into them all my experience and all my suffering."

For this weekend's concerts, Butorac chose one of Mahler's most introspective works, the series of songs for voice and orchestra known collectively as the "Rückert Lieder." Based on five poems by Friedrich Rückert, the songs neatly address the range of subjects that formed the core of Mahler's preoccupations in life: love, the creative impulse, and the meaning of existence.

"The last two (songs) of the cycle are very poignant," noted Butorac. "They really take a different approach to the same question Beethoven posed a hundred years earlier. So I think this music fits very well with the Beethoven Symphony, while giving the concert a nice contrast as well."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or jnickell@missoulian.com.

 

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