Cleveland Orchestra Family Concert:
“Beethoven Lives Upstairs”, a conversation
with guest conductor Michael Butterman
By Mike Telin
“Dear Uncle, Something terrible has happened, a mad man has moved into our house,” ten year-old Christoph writes to his uncle. And, that “mad man” of whom Christoph speaks happens to be none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.
On Sunday, May 6 at 2:00 pm at Severance Hall, The Cleveland Orchestra will present Beethoven Lives Upstairs, the fourth and final program in the Orchestra’s 2011-12 Family Concert Series. Based on the Classical Kids® recording of the same name, the performance features actors Natalie Berg as Christoph and Thad Avery as his uncle, all under the direction of conductor Michael Butterman, who will be making his Cleveland Orchestra debut.
Butterman, who is Music Director of the Boulder Philharmonic and the Shreveport Symphony Orchestras, and Resident Conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony, is also the Principal Conductor for Education and Outreach with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra—the first position of its kind in the United States, and a position he has held for 12 years.
Maestro Butterman, who has conducted the piece in the past, told us by telephone that he likes the piece for a couple of reasons: “first, because it has substantial serious music. Quite obviously they didn’t hire a composer to write a score for kids; this is the music of Beethoven, and the musical portions are beautifully woven into the narrative, none of them too long but enough to make the author's point.”
Indeed, the playlist for Beethoven Lives Upstairs weaves excerpts from Symphonies as well as numerous concertos and sonatas for piano and violin. “Musically it flows very well. For example, in one of the letters they talk about how Beethoven has met Mr. Johann Maelzel, who invented the metronome, and they explain what this device is, and while he is talking about it, you hear the woodblock going tick-tock – tick-tock. And as he is finishing his thought, it segues into the second movement of the 8th symphony, which is understood to be homage to the metronome. Little things like that,” Butterman explains. “It also does a nice job of weaving in non-orchestral music; for example, there is a lot for the concertmaster and the pianist to do — there is a substantial portion of the spring sonata.”
Although Beethoven Lives Upstairs does contain fabulous music, it is also a highly entertaining fictional story with a message. Maestro Butterman says that he also likes the piece because it presents Beethoven’s music in context; “it has a narrative structure, so there is a story arch that is yet another element that people can follow and get caught up in during the story. And it has enough multi-sensory stimulation that it is also engaging for young people. There are visuals and two actors on stage with some costuming. Minimal lighting, but enough to give it a theatrical bent. It is a good blend of edification and entertainment.”
But adults should not worry that Beethoven Lives Upstairs in only for kids, and Butterman points out that it is most definitely a piece for the entire family. “It does a very good job of demonstrating how music can reflect events in one's life. For example, as we follow Beethoven through the letters of Christoph and his uncle, we are made aware of the difficulties that Beethoven was experiencing during his increasing deafness, and the challenges that that presented. But it also shows how some of the music he was writing during that period reflects his impatience or frustration, but at the same time, how he was able, through music, to escape the problems that he was dealing with on an everyday level, and transcend them. So I think, without saying it, it shows kids, that art is a reflection of your feelings.”
Once we had finished our discussion of the subject at hand, Beethoven Lives Upstairs,
I asked Michael Butterman as few questions about his own career.
Mike Telin: Congratulations on your debut with The Cleveland Orchestra.
Michael Butterman: Thanks, and I am very pleased about that, and I’m looking forward to it very much.
MT: You have a fairly busy career going for yourself.
MB: This is true, and in fact to make this work out I had to switch a few things around, but anyway it’s keeping me out of trouble.
MT: Regarding your position as Principal Conductor for Education and Outreach with the Rochester Philharmonic; why did they decide to create that position?
MB: Rochester realized that many orchestras had principal pops conductors who were specializing in the repertoire of non-traditional or non-classical music for the most part. But a very important aspect of what orchestras are all about — outreach to young people in particular or classical outreach to non-traditional audiences — was often left to any number of people who might have a little extra time in their schedules. Often that was the assistant or associate conductor. So they wanted to find somebody who could focus on this one particular aspect of the orchestra's mission and give it cohesion and long-range vision and be a consistent presence for the orchestra, and that appealed to me a lot.
MT: When did you first become interested in this part of the orchestra's mission?
MB: In the summer of 1999 I went to Tanglewood as a conducting fellow and I participated in a seminar called Reinventing the Family Concert, with a fellow named Eric Booth. He was a very inspiring thinker about arts education and the way in which arts can interact with non-artists. We designed a couple of concerts and I ended up conducting and sort of hosting them, and I found that I felt really good about the work that we did. This was not only something that I felt comfortable doing, but it was also something very worthwhile.
Shortly after that I got a call from Rochester and they asked me to come and work with them a little bit. I did and I enjoyed it and we have been going every since.
MT: And has the orchestra remained committed to doing this kind of outreach?
MB: The orchestra has made a commitment to being the community’s orchestra, which is to say that it doesn’t content itself with just playing in the Eastman Theatre. It has made the commitment to taking the orchestra into the community to play concerts at churches, YMCAs, school gymnasiums — anyplace that is big enough to put an orchestra we will go. The hope is that one the barriers that prevents some people from attending the orchestra is that they just haven’t thought about driving downtown to the Eastman Theatre, but if the orchestra is going to be down the block, they might just check it out.
The orchestra has committed the resources necessary to make that happen. It is more expensive to take the orchestra out, and it has sought funding sources to underwrite these kinds of activities. About a third of the total musician services are devoted to this area of education outreach. So it is a significant portion of the orchestra's business.
MT: What kinds of programs for young people have you developed?
MB: what I have tried to do over time is to develop a sequential series of concerts from the youngest, or what we call Tiny Tots concerts into high school. I am trying to take them one step further [with each concert] along the listener continuum where we emphasize different kinds of listening skills. Of course I try to make the concerts fun and entertaining, but at the same time I feel that a reason that not enough people connect with classical music is that they don’t know how to approach it, or how to listen to it. It can demand more of you as a listener then a lot of other types of music, so if you don’t know what to grab onto while listening, it can wash over you and be an overwhelming experience.
So I try to emphasize different things at different times; for young kids it’s about recognizing timbres of instruments, and opposites like highs and lows, fasts and slows. Later on we try to make connections to curricular subjects that the students are working on.
MT: This is very interesting. I have played and heard so many concerts for young people that left me wondering 'What are young people actually gaining from these things'?
MB: Exactly. I had somewhat the same impression before I began all of this, and of course the worst possible situation is that you produce a concert that leaves the kids with the impression that classical music is dull and it’s not all that great. So I try to fill the concerts with good serious repertoire. I have to give a nod to Bernstein. Obviously he was a visionary in a lot of ways in this area with his young people's concerts; he didn’t dumb it down for them, he found ways to engage the young people with substantial repertoire, rather then kid's pieces, or pieces that were written with sing-song melodies and short choppy phrases. I think that young people can, if you do it correctly, find something in Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky to understand and to connect with.
MT: Had you thought about these kinds of things when you were a student?
MB: Well, I have to say that my path to conducting was certainly circuitous. I am a pianist and played violin through college. When I was graduating from high school I needed to decide if I was going to study piano at a conservatory or would I find something else. In the end I was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, mostly because I felt that I would do more good in this world by being a doctor.
But after I began to think a little more deeply, I thought that maybe the fact that there are not so many people who connect to classical music, the fact that it is not as much a part of the fabric of our culture as I think it should be — instead of that being a reason not to go into music, maybe that is the reason to do it. Maybe that’s a cause that you can join to make it more accessible to a greater number of people and thereby enrich their lives. And that was ultimately the key change of perspective that helped me make the decision to go into music. So even the work that I do in Boulder and or Shreveport where it is not specifically about young people or non-traditional audiences — even in those cases I’m always thinking of ways to broaden our footprint in the community, to make what we do as an orchestra mean more to more people. So this seeps into how we do our programming and the kinds of ways that we present subscription concerts as well.
MT: Thanks for taking the time to talk. Do you have final comments about the role of the orchestra in the community?
MB: Thank you and yes, I think, as orchestras we have to see ourselves not as the only answer of getting more people involved with classical music, but rather as partners with educators in the community, people who are teaching privately and who teach in the schools and run youth orchestras, because ultimately people who run orchestras with many resources and big reputations can’t do it all. What we can mostly do is to provide a spark of inspiration and hope that that is enough to start something that can be followed up with as performers. Because ultimately I think if you can get kids in contact as creators and not just as listeners, that’s when you have really done something. Even if they only play an instrument for a year, or two or three, they will have a different relationship with music for the rest of their lives.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 1, 2012
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