Maestro Michael Christie joined the Phoenix Symphony eight years ago and promptly coined his own magical mix of music and multi-media theater. Christie – whose resumé includes stints with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia – introduced Arizona audiences to the works of numerous living composers and the now-popular Intermission Insights, a halftime Q&A with featured musicians.
The Denver Post named Christie “Musician of the Year” in 2010, the orchestra is performing at a historically high level, and attendance is up, despite the recent downturn economy. So why the note of sadness? At the end of the 2012-2013 season, Christie, 38, will leave the symphony to direct the Minnesota Opera.
Why leave now?
I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish. We have a bigger and more diverse audience and an expanded repertoire. I am happy about the journey we’ve taken together. (Christie’s wife, Alexis, will be working as a fellow of intensive care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.)
Your rapport with the musicians contributed to your success.
We trust each other a lot, and with that trust comes lots of flexibility. The musicians feel confident and supported and can perform on a high level. We’ve done a mix of music: pieces that audiences know well, combined with works that neither the audience nor orchestra has ever heard, and that keeps us in good form. We’ve had 12 composers come to our performances when we’ve done their work. That makes us sit up higher on our seats and come together in a different way.
Your mix of music is also a factor.
People come here from all over the country and have a lot of experience with concerts. While they want to hear Beethoven and Dvorak, some people say it’s great to hear something off the beaten track. They don’t want to just hear the standards. So on every program there’s something people know and a piece they don’t know. If people were running for the doors, I would have changed the strategy, but our flexibility and skill has endeared people to us.
How did you end up conducting?
Growing up in Buffalo, my parents always took me to the Buffalo Philharmonic, and I was always intrigued by the conductor. In middle school, during a trumpet lesson, I asked my teacher how conducting works. He showed me a baton, taught me to set the tempo and then let me conduct a rehearsal. I’m sure there were a lot of people laughing at me at first, but then I became the go-to guy when the director was out sick. At Oberlin Conservatory of Music, it was the same process. That’s how it developed.
Who are your favorite composers?
I love George Frideric Handel, and Igor Stravinsky is my other favorite. He mixes [the] earthy with a kind of folk sensibility in a very dramatic way. He’s like a painter using a very large palette and mixing colors in the most stringent, eye-popping way. When the orchestra plays Stravinsky, it is so visceral. Everyone has to throw themselves into it.
Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkel, and Chicago are my go-to guys. That’s the stuff I roll down the window and sing my heart out to.
I love the theatrical and multimedia elements that I brought to the symphony. I treasure that multifaceted experience as a performer and audience member. That’s what draws me to opera – not only the singing but the high-def projections and even holograms. It’s becoming a highly sensory art form. I love how personal the expression is. A singer is putting it all out there, and as the conductor of that, it is really gratifying and fun and scary.
How do you feel about leaving Arizona summers for Minneapolis winters?
My wife, Alexis, is Australian, and my daughter, Sinclair (4), has lived her whole life here. They don’t know what they’re in for. We are going from the insane to the ridiculous.