Seeing a live Buffalo Philharmonic performance of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as a teenager may not have been an “a-ha” moment in the life of New West Symphony music director Michael Christie. But it did offer a powerful insight into what made music, in his mind, magical.
“My parents had told me about Disney’s Fantasia and how ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ was used to such great effect,” recalls Christie. “And as I listened to it performed live, I was captivated by how these images came alive in my head — and, even more, how amazing that people playing musical instruments could evoke such an emotional response from the audience. To me, as a musician, that’s the coolest thing we can do, to connect with people in ways that are energetic and imaginative.”
Such is, you might say, Christie’s mission statement as he prepares for New West Symphony’s 2019-20 season. In addition to selecting a wide range of pieces for NWS to perform in conjunction with noted guest artists, Christie is intent on making the concert-going experience as interactive as possible.
“We want people to know more about the musicians as well as the music,” says the Minneapolis-based conductor, speaking by phone from Des Moines, Iowa. “That’s why we’ve introduced a program called ‘Entr’acte’ during intermission, inviting the audience to meet and talk with our musicians, to have a new experience they might not have elsewhere. Because it’s through engaging the audience as much as possible that music can make its strongest impact.”
In Christie, NWS has brought to Southern California a relatively young (he turns 45 on June 30) but highly regarded conductor who The New York Times describes as “open to adventure and challenge.” That observation was borne out when Christie received a 2019 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera Recording, for the world premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” with the Santa Fe Opera.
Born and raised in Buffalo, he benefited from “a wonderful public school music education that provided lots of opportunities for development — like youth orchestras and musical theater — and I really connected with the performance aspect.” At Oberlin College’s Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Christie earned a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance, and during that time had opportunities to conduct. In 1995 he received a special prize for “Outstanding Potential” at the First International Sibelius Conductors’ Competition in Helsinki, and was invited to become an apprentice conductor working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Berlin State Opera during the 1996-97 season.
Since then, Christie has compiled an impressive array of international conducting credits, including chief conductor of the Queensland Orchestra (2001-2004) in Australia; music director of the Phoenix Symphony (2005-2013), Brooklyn Philharmonic (2005-2010) and Colorado Music Festival (2000-2013); and guest appearances leading (among other ensembles) the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
When the New West Symphony’s music director position opened up, Christie was invited to visit Southern California by Alexander Gurevich, NWS general manager.
“I found an amazing group of musicians, and a wonderful leadership team,” he says. “We talked about ways to develop audiences, connecting with the community and schools through ongoing educational programs.”
The community will have chance to see a different side of New West Symphony when it celebrates summer with a special, one-night-only outdoor concert (the symphony’s first) at William Rolland Stadium at California Lutheran University. “Titanic Live” will feature a screening of the hit film with NWS performing James Horner’s epic score under the guidance of conductor Ludwig Wicki.
Christie will pick up the baton again when the 2019-20 season officially begins on Oct. 5 and 6 with a 25th season salute, featuring works by Corigliano, Gershwin and Rismky-Korsakov plus jazz from the Marcus Roberts Trio. Future programs will include a 250th Beethoven birthday salute, “music of dreams” with area choral groups, violinist Sarah Chang performing Brahms, and “Violins of Hope,” featuring orchestra members playing string instruments that survived the Holocaust.
“It’s a balance of artistic statements,” says Christie. “As we go into the new season, we’ll continue to develop these ideas and adjust where necessary. I really believe in leading by example and all of us working through the process together. It’s about working with, not at, the community. In the arts you have to win people over one at a time, and that takes work, but we are moving forward.”
New West Symphony presents “Titanic Live,” on Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. at California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For tickets, more information and a full lineup of performances, call 805-497-5800 or visit newwestsymphony.org.