“And now for a big surprise. Tonight is a joyous celebration and I cannot imagine a better time and place to make this announcement, in front of 300 close friends of the Symphony,” teased Natalia Staneva, chief executive officer of New West Symphony, at the organization’s December gala. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you Grammy Award nominee and new music director of the New West Symphony, Michael Christie!”
And with that, a nearly three-year conductor search culminated in a rousing standing ovation for Maestro Michael Christie, by New West Symphony’s patrons and musicians. Christie takes on the position of Music Director, a role that represents the artistic and creative leadership of New West Symphony. Christie first performed with the Symphony in October 2018, conducting the orchestra’s season opening concert, featuring Rhapsody in Blue and other George Gershwin songs performed by Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair.
“The orchestra members experienced tremendous chemistry performing with Michael and expressed a great desire to have him as music director, and the board of directors agreed,” says Symphony Board Chair, Kim Woods. “Michael is a great fit for our organization and we have full confidence in his success as an artistic leader in our community.”
In addition to conducting the orchestra during performances, the position encompasses more than most people might realize.
“The main part of the job is obviously leading the performances and rehearsing the orchestra,” but as Christie explains, “the music director job has come to mean more than the man or woman on the podium. It includes setting artistic vision, helping people understand why we’re doing certain pieces, and engaging audiences. And in partnership with our donors, board and staff, getting our programs into people’s hearts so they want to support the organization and come to concerts.”
With a career spanning more than 20 years, Christie has been music director for Phoenix Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic and Queensland Symphony in Australia, as well as a guest conductor with some of the world’s most notable orchestras around the world, including an apprenticeship under Maestro Daniel Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Most recently Maestro Christie led Minnesota Opera as music director for eight seasons.
“Michael’s experience producing diverse, multimedia productions was particularly interesting to us as we advance our repertoire to include a wider array of performances,” says Staneva. “This is unique and valuable experience, which we know will present opportunities for New West Symphony to expand into new types of concerts moving into the celebration of our 25th anniversary in 2019/2020.”
Christie’s reputation in the opera world has just been boosted with four Grammy Award nominations for his live recording of the contemporary opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which he debuted with the Santa Fe Opera in 2017.
“It’s really interesting to create an opera from scratch. When you do a brand new piece, audience members are comparing it to different things,” says Christie. This unique work, composed by Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, tells the story of Apple Computer founder and the inventor of the iPhone, who, as Christie describes, “revolutionized the way people communicate, and yet he struggled with personal communications.” No stranger to winning notable awards for conducting new opera works, Christie also premiered, with the Minneapolis Opera, Silent Night by Kevin Puts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the work.
With his expansive background in opera, Christie brings a unique perspective to the symphonic world.
“Opera forces you to be a musical storyteller. For example, when you conduct an opera by Dvořák, and then you look at his symphonic work, his dramatic impulse can inform your choice of tempo and how you do phrases. Opera gives us a way to think about composers’ symphonic music in terms of how they view drama.”
New West Symphony’s 25th anniversary will mark Christie’s debut season, and planning for this milestone season, which launches in October 2019, has already begun.
“We are going to start with something that gets people’s attention and represents the spirit of the whole season,” says Christie. “It also means balancing what we’ve done in the recent past. People love the old masters, but we want to be sure that when we play a master work, we give it a fresh look.” Maestro Christie offers a clue of what to expect in his inaugural season: “Beethoven’s 250th birthday will be in 2020. Beethoven is beyond popular; he’s vital to what we do.”
While Christie is inspired by music from every era, he does have some favorites.
“I do gravitate to early 20th Century. I like Stravinsky and Debussy, both in their opera and symphonic works; both composers created instrumentation with a tremendous color palette. A lot of instruments really came into their current form during the late part of the 19th century, so the power and the beauty of the sound has to do with the volume the instruments could play.” Prior to this period, instruments were relatively muted, but the brass and keyboard instruments, in particular, evolved to have the larger sounds more familiar today, which are core to the modern orchestra. “You have composers like Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Gershwin, who made all those color combinations really sparkle,” Christie explains.
Today Maestro Christie makes Minneapolis, Minnesota, his home, with his wife Alexis, a surgeon he met in Australia when he was music director of Queensland Symphony, and daughter Sinclair and son Beckett.
“Minneapolis is a little bit cooler than Ventura County,” he says. “I love the seasons, I grew up in Buffalo, and I love that bracing cold air. Sinclair, who is 10, is a great figure skater, as well as a Suzuki violinist. Our son Beckett is 4 and we’re waiting to see what his musical direction will be.”
Maestro Christie will return to conduct New West Symphony’s April concerts, “Indescribable Beauty,” featuring Chopin Piano Competition winner Yulianna Avdeeva performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and the orchestra performs Schuman’s Symphony No. 4.
“One of my favorite symphonies is the 4th symphony of Schumann,” says Christie. “It’s a beautiful piece with a surprising number of solos for instrumentalists in the orchestra offering moments to put the spotlight on them.” Christie continues, “Robert Schumann was a fascinating composer who was trying to embrace what was going on stylistically at the time, but at the same time trying to find his own voice. With his fourth symphony, he blends the movements together in a very clever way; it’s quite dramatic and innovative. He’s a very athletic composer for the orchestra but also very lyrical.” These concerts will be performed April 6 and 7 in Thousand Oaks and Oxnard.
With a degree in trumpet performance from Oberlin College of Music, Christie notes, “Trumpet players are dramatic, we like to be the top voice. I love drama in music. I can look back on the last 23 years and I can see how I’ve been influenced by that.” With his appointment at New West Symphony, audiences will get to experience Maestro Christie’s unique artistic vision and perspective in action.
For more information on New West Symphony’s Masterpiece Series and Maestro Michael Christie, visit NewWestSymphony.org.