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Michael Christies farewell to Phoenix Symphony

He’s about to lead the Phoenix Symphony in his final concert as Virginia G. Piper music director. And maestro Michael Christie is feeling pretty good about what he’s been able to accomplish in the past eight years.

“I think both the orchestra and the audience are more comfortable with the idea of the larger swath of music we’ve explored than perhaps they might have been when I first got here,” Christie says.

“That’s not to say we’ve done a better job than the people previous. But there was a mission to achieve an expansion, a feeling of openness, a feeling of connectivity that I feel very strongly about. And I think we’ve accomplished a lot of that.”

The biggest challenge Christie faced when he arrived eight years ago, he says, was probably his age. Although he had a decade of experience as a conductor, he was 30 at the time and taking over the baton from Hermann Michael, a man he describes as “a very dignified, accomplished, older German conductor who was very beloved and had created his own kind of aura.”

Regardless of whom he would been replacing, though, Christie says, “Being a young American music director is always very tricky. The silver-haired maestro persona is hard to live up to on many levels. They look at a young man and say, ‘Boy, maybe he doesn’t have all the experience one could have’ or ‘Maybe he hasn’t lived with the music long enough.’ ”

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Christie graduated from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music with a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance. After winning a special prize in 1995 for “Outstanding Potential” at the First International Sibelius Conductors’ Competition in Helsinki, Finland, he was invited to become an apprentice conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now 38 and having already begun his new position as music director of the Minnesota Opera, he’s in his 13th season as music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder and has also served as chief conductor of the Queensland Orchestra (2001-2004) and music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (2005-2010).

The maestro says he did his best to usher in the changes he had planned as gradually as possible when he first came to Phoenix, having been appointed the symphony’s music director in December 2004.

“Since I’d been music director of other orchestras,” he says, “I had a pretty good feeling for the fact that one has to be sensible about just slowly turning the ship so that people understand you’re going in a new direction but they’re not getting seasick in the process.”

Christie’s strategy, he says, was to try to find music that people would latch onto the first time they heard it and be surprised that they hadn’t heard it before, while making sure to include the tried-and-true pieces that make up the classical canon.

“There’s great comfort in familiarity,” Christie says. “And the most familiar pieces are familiar for a reason.”

50-plus new pieces

Steve Hanusofski, a clarinetist with the orchestra, who gave a speech at the conductor’s farewell dinner in mid-April, was on the music-director search committee when Christie was hired.

As he recalls, “One of the things Michael said when he got here was that one of his goals was to bring 50 new pieces to the orchestra. And by new, that doesn’t necessarily mean music that’s just been written. There’s a lot of classical music that for one reason or another is not performed as much. We definitely have our Top 40, especially nowadays. A lot of orchestras have had to fall back on, ‘OK, what’s popular?’ to bring people in.”

It took only three years to hit that goal of introducing 50 pieces, and by Christie’s count, they’d tripled it by April, when he led the orchestra in Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Antonio Estévez’s “La Cantata Criolla.”

“Right there,” he says, “as Michael leaves, we’re doing two pieces that are not only new to the orchestra but also new to a large segment of our audience. He’s not the only music director who’s done this. This is my fourth music director since I’ve been here. But Michael made it a priority.”

And concertmaster Steven Moeckel says it worked in part because, as a conductor, Christie always did his best to bring the audience along.

“He really gained that trust from them,” he says, “that they’re like, ‘OK, Michael knows what he’s doing and this is going to be good. Or it’s going to be interesting.’ ”

Success amid adversity

Symphony CEO Jim Ward credits Christie with having a “tremendous impact” on the orchestra despite what he calls a “tumultuous” economic backdrop for the arts across the nation.

“It’s a tough environment,” Ward says. “And in spite of that and in stark contrast to that, we have a Phoenix Symphony that from a business perspective has completed a major turnaround and is artistically celebrating great advances, thanks to Michael.

“So it is a great tribute to him and his leadership that he’s leaving the symphony in good stead.”

When Ward came onboard in 2011, attendance at Symphony Hall was averaging 50 percent of capacity. Today, it’s at 75 percent. Ward credits Christie’s innovative"" programming as well as his efforts at reaching out to the community.

“Michael has brought an accessibility to the symphony and demystified it in a way that not many conductors can do,” Ward says. “It’s very rare when you see a conductor standing at the front door welcoming people into his own concerts. Usually, maestros are tucked away in their dressing rooms fretting about the concert.”

The orchestra is also playing at a higher level.

“He’s really pushed the envelope in terms of their musicianship to the best it’s been in the existence of the symphony,” Ward says. “Our patrons regularly comment on that fact.”

Christie challenged the musicians, Moeckel says.

“And any time we’re playing pieces that really push our limits, we are getting better,” Moeckel says. “We are at a different place artistically and technically than we were before Michael was here.”

As Christie moves on to his new life with the Minnesota Opera, he leaves behind what Ward calls some very big shoes to fill as the search for a music director continues.

“What we do want to do,” Ward says, “is continue the momentum that Michael has built around those core areas — accessibility, innovation in programming, audience development, the ability to impact the community in the way that he has. Those are absolute requirements.”

C.A. Howlett, the symphony’s chairman of the board, says, “Michael will be missed both from a professional and a personal perspective. He’s a talented, charming, engaging man who’s committed to the orchestra and the community. That’s a good combination. Sales are up. Attendance is up. I don’t hear grousing. And remember, he lived here. He didn’t just parachute in for the concert.”

Gone, but not for good

Christie’s decision to leave now went beyond the opportunity to lead the Minnesota Opera.

“My wife’s training at Mayo Scottsdale was going to be concluding last year,” he says. “And as we looked forward, this coming autumn, my daughter will be starting kindergarten. The area of specialization that my wife wanted to go in is not offered in Phoenix. We saw that. And we thought, well, do we really want to be separated while she does the training? Then, this job came open with the Minnesota Opera and for her at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.”

Christie also likes the thought of moving on before the classical community or the orchestra have had a chance to wish he would.

“I really feel proud of the fact that we are ending this particular chapter in our relationship wanting another chapter,” Christie says. “We’re saying goodbye to this music director-orchestra component of our relationship at quite a high point, whereas usually the conductor is kind of thrown out.”

Christie laughs, then adds, “I’m very happy that we can still smile at each other and celebrate the performances that really go well and work together on the things that are harder without feeling somehow acidic toward each other.”

This isn’t really the end of the symphony’s relationship with Christie, either.

“Our board of directors has made Michael music-director laureate,” Ward says, “which gives him the opportunity to come back and conduct. He’s coming back next year to do Verdi’s Requiem, one of his favorite choral works. So at the end of the day, we’re not really saying goodbye.”


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