The Phoenix Symphony introduced patrons to its next music director, New York native Tito Muñoz, in February. But the new maestro’s predecessor, Michael Christie, is still very much a part of the Phoenix Symphony family.
Now leading the orchestra for Minnesota Opera, Christie returns to Symphony Hall on Friday and Saturday, April 25-26, to lead Verdi’s Requiem, a choral masterwork composed in honor of Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni.
The conductor was last in town in March for a program featuring the world premiere of Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s “The Returned Soldier,” the latest product of the Phoenix Symphony Commissioning Club. As Christie describes it, the club is a group of couples who gather to enjoy fine wines and listen to music to find the right composers to create new works that will mean something to Valley audiences.
The program is an important part of Christie’s legacy from his eight years here, which he discussed in a recent conversation from his new home in Minneapolis.
Question: “The Returned Soldier” was both beautiful and challenging, with meditative passages contrasting with big dramatic moments. How do you judge the results?
Answer: I thought the new piece went really well. It was big and burly. It was really fun.
This whole commissioning project has turned out to be such a great idea. It worked exactly as I had hoped, and the people involved feel a great sense of ownership way beyond if we had just said to the public, “We’re doing this new piece, sit down and shut up.” I think it’s a part of my legacy, and I hope it continues long into the future.
The only thing I was really insistent about — and I also stacked the deck slightly when I chose the composers — was I wanted to make sure that when people heard the piece it was something they could connect with on the first hearing. It doesn’t mean the music was less sophisticated. But you get used to what an audience’s tastes are.
Q: So how would you characterize the audience in Phoenix?
A: What I think is great about the Phoenix audience is, with so many people coming from different cities, there is more overall experience with orchestral music represented throughout that audience. Some people would say, “I’ve heard enough of Beethoven’s Fifth in my lifetime,” and others said, “We want to hear more.” But as a whole there was a great sense of adventure and trust that we would play music on different levels. I really aimed for pieces of music that would intrigue and challenge on a certain level without just throwing something out there knowing it’s prickly for prickly’s sake. I don’t think that’s of value to anybody.
Q: For those who don’t know Verdi’s Requiem, what can we expect?
A: People are going to hear a tremendous amount of big operatic style. There’s a lot of his opera sensibility in the Requiem even though he would be loath to call it an opera. But the way he writes music for solo voices, everything feels genuinely operatic. How could he write otherwise?
It will feel like familiar territory. You’ll recognize the “Dies Irae” from movies, and that’s nice because he brings that music back throughout the piece as a unifiying motive. It’s really well done. It endures for all the right reasons. Every movement of it really is a very profound feeling. It’s like what you experience with Handel’s “Messiah.” Whether or not you’re a religious person, you are taken on this very profound personal journey.
Q: It has been described as “monumental.”
A: The work is scored for really massive forces. I think we’re going to have 140 chorus members onstage. We’re absolutely at capacity for what we can fit on that stage. And there are even more trumpets than you saw (for Respighi’s “Roman Festivals”) surrounding the audience.
Verdi is one of those composers who wanted the extremes to be delivered with every ounce of human potential. So you render it with even more intimacy. It’s really quite extraordinary, and any time you pick a piece that is 80-, 90-minutes long, it’s very exciting for the performers because it’s this physical and emotional test and trial to take the audience through it.
Q: You made choral work a priority here. Why?
A: Because of works like this, works like Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth. There are parts of the repertoire that are simply not possible to enjoy without a great chorus, and you can’t have a great chorus unless they are trained and used and focused on the activity of the symphony. For me working with the chorus was an investment in the repertory. To make sure we could use those forces when required.
Our chorus master, Thomas Bookhout, has done such great work with the chorus. The interesting thing about the chorus is that they’re all volunteer, and I think building up that volunteer base into a group that is as polished as it is was a big task and a very exciting local achievement.
Q: You were 30 when you came to Phoenix, still quite young. What did you learn during your tenure?
A: The biggest thing that I learned is that politics is local, and music is local, too. I came to Phoenix thinking that there was great importance in creating a national or potentially international stature for the symphony. And while that’s not unimportant, there was so much more fun and interest to have when my days were more about Phoenix. Creating the commissioning club. We had these little minifestivals in connection with the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum).
I said to Tito, “Really focus on Phoenix. Because it doesn’t really matter what anybody else thinks is happening, it only matters what the people in those seats think. It’s a great, varied community. Celebrate what you’ve got there.”
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Phoenix Symphony: Verdi’s Requiem: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 25-26. Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix. $18-$79. 602-495-1999, phoenixsymphony.org.