Michael Christie: Music Director, The Phoenix Symphony

“What one word for you keep in mind when planning a season?” Surprises.

    With the coming season, Michael Christie concludes his tenure as music director of The Phoenix Symphony. What was once new – the brash young American bringing spanking new repertoire to the concert hall – will fade into the past, leaving behind a vital heritage that the music of living composers belongs on concert programs alongside that of the long dead Great Ones.

    “We’ve played Corigliano with Berlioz, and Higdon with Rachmaninoff. The idea has always been to keep people surprised and intrigured enough that they’ll come to hear music they didn’t already know,” says Christie.
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    For more of Christie’s eight years at the helm, The Phoenix Symphony featured a 3-composer main menu of one well-known figure (say, Beethoven), a second of more recent vintage (Debussy, perhaps, or Bartok) and a living composer Concert programs made meaningful connections between the works of the three. A single month, for example, might have brought concertos by all three, pointing up the similarities and contrasts in their various treatments of the form.

    The project put The Phoenix Symphony on the new music map, “Along the way, 15 different living composers have come to Phoenix to hear their music performed and talk with our audiences. That should be a point of pride for Phoenix. We’re significant enough that these ladies and gentlemen would make the trip,” Christie says.

    Will this energetic balancing of old and new continue under the orchestra’s next music director? The Symphony’s 2012=2013 season (www.phoenixsymphony.org) will feature a series of guest conductors vying for the position (Christie will also conduct several programs). The winner’s emphasis on new and old will depend on his or her personality. But to Christie, Phoenix audiences are perfect for new music because so many of them come from other, bigger cities where they’ve already heard the mainstream repertoire many times over. “One of the charming things about Phoenix is this audience is from other places. If you take the Friday Coffee Classics, for instance, they really shop up for the new. Ask them and they’ll say “I’ve heard the Eroica, I’ve heard Tchaikovsky; I want to hear other things.”

    Christie is leaving The Phoenix Symphony to music-direct the Minnesota Opera. Opera is a new enthusiasm for the conductor, who identifies with the reason once given for the late, great Leonard Bernstein’s similar eagerness to conduct for the operatic stage: there’s that much more that can go wrong.

    “I like the multifaceted aspect of opera, and it’s interesting to be able to spend time with your fellow artists. This week’s spend on an opera, working with the director and the singers, produces a different rapport than the three or four days you typically spend preparing a symphony orchestra concert.” He says.

    Not surprisingly, Christie chooses two concert versions of contemporary operas as his favorite memories of The Phoenix Symphony: “John Adams’ Nixon in China and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. The Orchestra was really charged up for those and they still talk about them as significant milestones.”

    Despite his association with new music, Christie insists that new for the sake of new was never his intention. “I never had an agenda other than making good music. I wanted to lead people down a path of good quality without pandering.”