Phoenix Symphony

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Symphony Director, Michael Christie talks about the current season of concerts and some of the challenges the Symphony faces in our current economic climate.

Ted Simons: After a successful fund-raising campaign, it was announced the Phoenix Symphony will be providing live music for ballet Arizona's presentation of the nutcracker this holiday season. It's a significant announcement in the face of tough economic times that have been especially trying for the arts community. Joining me now to talk about the Phoenix Symphony and how it's dealing with the recession is the symphony's director, Michael Christie. Good to have you on "Horizon."

Michael Christie: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: Before we get to the money matters, what's the state of the symphony right now?

Michael Christie: Well, we're enjoying robust ticket sales. Above our goals, which is great. Contributed money is definitely where the trouble lies. We're in a real estate community and a lot of donors of commercial real estate folks and that's a little bit tricky but I'm thrilled we've been able to maintain vigorous programming.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask, does the programming change when you got to get the tickets in? Do you have find yourself veering to the war horses as opposed to new music you would like to play?

Michael Christie: I would like to play all of it. I believe variety is key. When I'm planning a whole season, nine months, I'm trying to find different points that people who like war horses, for example, will find on the calendar and people who want different kinds of experiences also. I wouldn't say there's a panacea, an easy answer to ticket sales but I've been committed to trying to have a good balance. Really good concert experience and energetic performances and ticket sales represent the success.

Ted Simons: Is that the bottom line, the ticket sales? How do you know that the innovative piece that excites people is still holding on to people who want to hear Beethoven and Bach.

Michael Christie: I think the lines have been blurred here more than a lot of communities and I think it enables us to mix things in a more provocative way and we don't have to rely on one camp in people's interest versus another.

Ted Simons: Did that one camp, the new music camp, did it go too far in not recognizing and appreciating and celebrating melody?

Michael Christie: Well, I think in many ways, yes, I don't think it appreciated and celebrated the listener to be perfectly honest. I think it was very composer centric and performer centric and didn't think about what the person hearing the music for the first time would experience and we've pass that's now and for the last 15 years and going forward, there's a whole new group of composers focusing on more topic related things. We're celebrating the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth and there's pieces about his birth and we had pieces composed about the Navajo sacred traditions and people writing melodic things related to poetry and there's a resurgence of beautiful, rich harmonies and melodies and that's been taking people's interests again.

Ted Simons: Resurgence, with the audience as well?

Michael Christie: Yes, people are relieved when they hear a piece of music and there's something they can grab on and remember as they go home.

Ted Simons: How difficult is it? Some of the 21st Century stuff, the surrealism, that seems hard to get right the first time. How difficult was it for the players?

Michael Christie: A lot is extremely complex and they're asked to produce sounds they're not used to playing and there's a lot of homework that has to go into it. On a week to week basis, some of that music is not incredibly fulfilling and people are relieved they get to sit back and make their instruments sing beautiful and a think audience and performer alike are reinvigorated by this new group of composers.

Ted Simons: The collaboration with ballet Arizona on the nutcracker, this kind of collaboration happens all the time. Is it happening more in these tough economic times?

Michael Christie: I would say generally yes, but we've been doing it for at least the time I've been here, Phoenix boys' choir and we're working more with ASU and the other communities I have been music director that's a hallmark. We say a certain number of collaborations every year and purposefully go out and do that. Here in Phoenix, that's been a big, big push for me, to have the meetings and get people excited and work in different performance venues and multimedia activities and really expand what I call expanding the pie of the symphony's influence.

Ted Simons: As far as expanding the pie in terms of the symphony's performance, where does the Phoenix Symphony rank? We're not probably L.A. and San Francisco and New York.

Michael Christie: We're high. Every time I come home, I'm just so thrilled at the orchestra's flexibility and sense of adventure. A lot of these folks have been here for quite a long time and there's the tremendous tradition, a camaraderie and team spirit that helps me in the performance of the works and so I -- I would say we are -- orchestras are grouped by budget class and when you get to $15 million and above, you're in the A orchestra. We're in the B category. $6 million to $15 million. We're the top of that category, which I'm thrilled about.

Ted Simons: We've been hearing about turmoil at the Phoenix Symphony in a variety of ways and players leaving and accusations that they're not getting along with you. I have to ask you, first, what's going on, where does that stand? And how does that affect just the image of the symphony and the orchestra?

Michael Christie: Well, cooler heads prevailed and I think it's very calm at the symphony. Of course, when I new leader comes and change happens, people wonder what's my agenda -- I think people are much more comfortable that I'm not after individuals, I'm really about creating a great environment to make music for our excited audience. And, of course, change happens and sadly a few people decided to make some of those things public, which was premature and disappointing really, for me. But every -- every -- I think, every employer, every employment has these moments when you have to ask somebody to do something and -- you know, we move forward.

Ted Simons: So you see that as growing pains.

Michael Christie: Oh, definitely, a growing pains situation.

Ted Simons: If -- with that in mind, can the Phoenix Symphony grow to -- and without talking budget so much as performance, to where everyone goes, awe, they're doing X, Y, Z, we have to get the C.D., is that still in the cards?

Michael Christie: Absolutely. We just performed one of the greatest 20th Century operas, called "Nixon in China." The audience, their jaws were on the ground. We had people calling and emailing asking for encore presentations. We had other orchestras asking us how we did this and it's my wish we continue to have all of our projects be that well known and I'm happy we're getting that notoriety.

Ted Simons: If you were on a desert island and you only had one C.D. What is the piece that you would have to have?

Michael Christie: I think I would have any number of recordings of the opera by Mozart. I think opera is just an amazing thing and if I was sitting on an island, beach, sun, palm trees, I'd want those melodies in my head.

Ted Simons: Very good. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon."

Michael Christie: Director, Phoenix Symphony;

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