After a season devoted to auditioning six finalists, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra has tapped Darko Butorac as its next music director. Butorac succeeds Daniel Meyer, who departed the orchestra after the end of the most recent season, his 12th in Asheville.
Butorac, 40, began his life in classical music as a cellist, but had his first chance to conduct an orchestra when he was 17. From then on, he knew he wanted a life on the podium.
“It’s a kind of a beautiful climb through the career ranks,” he said by phone earlier this week as he traveled between Japan and Taiwan to speak at a leadership conference. “Starting from the bottom has given me a lot of perspective and a lot of tools to get to this position.”
Butorac’s family moved from Belgrade to Seattle when he was 10. Butorac was only in his mid-20s when he won his first international conducting competition, and he’s led orchestras all over the world ever since. He has steered the Missoula Symphony in Montana since 2007 and five years ago added the title of music director for the Tallahassee Symphony in Florida.
He had his eye on the Asheville Symphony since coming to the area in the early 2000s to work with the Brevard Music Center. Butorac’s first program in Asheville as music director is Sept. 15.
“In looking to grow my career, you’re looking at bigger orchestras. Asheville is bigger than the current two positions I have, and I was very excited when it opened up,” he said. “Of course, it’s a very daunting task. Every time you have a position open up, it’s very competitive, so to actually be in the position of music director is absolutely thrilling to me.”
Butorac said he’s intrigued by Asheville’s commitment to performing masterworks by the titans of classical music, though he has a particular affinity for Prokofiev, Stravinsky and other Russian composers. At least during this conversation, Butorac didn’t seem impassioned about presenting new music, but said when something new grabs his ears, he’s hungry to learn more and bring it to one of his orchestras.
In the end, he said he tries to learn what each particular city wants and needs from its orchestra.
“I approach programming or ideas with an intuition. Almost like a chef, when they’re making a great meal, they just feel it needs a little of this, a little of that,” he said. “And there’s a mood in the city I try to connect to. In terms of Asheville. It’s a unique community—people from all over the country, very well educated and probably standards in comparison to other orchestras might be higher. People are used to hearing the Metropolitan Opera or New York Philharmonic, and then coming to Asheville and coming to the Asheville Symphony. So the expectations might be different. What they are, I don’t know yet but I look forward to finding out.”
Michael Brubaker has played the horn for 20 years with the Asheville Symphony and was a member of the search committee for the new music director. He said there was unanimity among committee members about the selection of Butorac from among the six finalists who auditioned this past season.
“Darko’s concert by far had a higher level of excitement amongst the players and, of course, as we discovered, with the audience, as well,” Brubaker said. “Right away, I recognized he had a vocabulary of music that was far beyond what we’re expecting or we’re used to. So many other conductors have a style we would need several rehearsals with to discover what they wanted to get out of the music. With Darko, it was much faster and much more immediate.”
The 2018-19 season will be Butorac’s last in Missoula, but that also means he will juggle three music directorships for the year before settling into an easier commute between Asheville and Tallahassee. Butorac’s wife and two-year-old son will remain in Missoula until he can find a new home in the southeast.
“I’m a very outgoing , gregarious person with a flair for the dramatic. I’m interested in energy, I’m interested in passion, I’m interested in connecting from the stage to the audience,” he said. “I want everybody to feel something. If somebody goes to a concert and feels indifferent, that’s a failure on my part.”
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Michael Brubaker as the Chair of the search committee for the ASO music director. The chair was Jack Anderson, a member of the ASO's board of directors.