The job sometimes requires Maestro Robert W. Butts to come to work in a tuxedo, but don’t let that put you off. He’s as accessible and respectful as they come. He’s a man of arts and letters, and he’s passionate about his partnerships. There are many, and they go far beyond Madison, where he oversees the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey. In Paris, for example, he recently conducted his work for ensemble and viola, “Strings Along the Seine.”
The BONJ founder spoke with me by phone between rehearsals for the orchestra’s month-long summer music festival, which kicks off July 17 at the Madison Community Arts Center and comes to venues across Morris County, offering three concerts, a cabaret and a symposium.
He’s enthusiastic about music-making and his musicians, most of whom live within 25 miles of Madison and some of whom have been with the orchestra since it was founded in 1996. It’s a mutual love, and prized, as classical music annals are full of arrogant “tough love” maestros who rule their orchestras with an iron fist.
Does Butts float like a butterfly or sting like a bee? “I think the musicians would most likely describe me as both a nurturer and egalitarian — I’d like to think I’m more in the Abbado/Chailly/Pappano sphere,” he said, referencing a trio of international conductors known for their gentlemanly synergy with their orchestras.
Butts founded the summer festival in 2006 and serves as its artistic director. His programming curates a wide range of music across all periods and styles. This year’s festival centers on rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered arts and cultural venues worldwide and sent reeling organizations on hiatus. The BONJ rose to the challenge.
“We are a small orchestra with very small resources and yet we did a great deal,” he said of his initiatives during the lockdowns. The 2020 summer festival was entirely virtual. Last year’s edition was streamlined into two free concerts at the Madison Community Arts Center, a venue that accommodates outdoor seating.
This year is modest compared to pre-pandemic festivals, and some concerts are still free, “as a way of returning live music to the community,” Butts said. He also tweaked the programming to include more Baroque chestnuts, “so there is a comfort level with returning to the live concert experience.”
Butts connects to music of all genres, but Baroque is in his DNA. For his master’s degree in musicology (University of Iowa, ’89), he focused on music of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the ’80s, he performed on period instruments such as the lute, the recorder and the gamba. He transitioned to conducting in the early ’90s, mainly with early music ensembles.
He seeded the BONJ as a small ensemble to perform the music of Baroque masters such as Bach, Handel, Corelli, Purcell, Vivaldi, Mozart and Haydn. “Hence, The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey,” he said.
Over time, he explained, the orchestra expanded its repertoire and kept its name “even though we no longer just performed 18th century music, because we have, over the past 25 years, developed a following and a reputation.”
He initially toyed with making the BONJ a period instrument orchestra. This meant committing to historically informed performances, or H.I.P, which plays early music exactly as it was performed in its time, on period instruments. Ultimately, he decided against it because it would limit the scope of the orchestra’s repertoire, and younger musicians generally wouldn’t be able to afford both modern and period instruments.
Besides, Butts’ style as a conductor goes beyond the role of a custodian of the score. “I believe the score is a guide and should be followed as closely as possible, but at the same time the score should be open to interpretive nuance and differences,” he said, adding “I am not a purist, for sure — at least not entirely. I believe more in finding the spirit and depth of a piece of music, which enables the performance to say something and to touch both the performers and listeners.”
Among the best qualities in his conductor’s toolkit are intuition and respectfulness. “One of my strengths as a conductor, I think, is that I can recognize people’s ability and what they can do and I can allow them to bring it out because I think it enhances the music, whether it be mine or Mozart’s or whomever. So, I make it feel like it’s our effort. It’s never just about me in any way.”
Butts’ respectful nature is the cornerstone of his Keys 2 Success collaboration, a Newark-based program that connects young students from the most underserved areas of the city with hands-on music education and keyboard lessons. The BONJ opening concert on July 17 will feature some of the students playing works co-composed with Butts.
“My biggest hope for the collaboration is just to — corny as this might sound — make the world a better place the only way I know how personally, which is with my work,” he says. “I think my main goal is the idea of bringing people together, recognizing the diversity and unity, sharing the day and the world and life and the music.”
Another rewarding BONJ collaboration is with the Morristown National Historical Park. The festival’s July 23 symposium at the Washington’s Headquarters Museum in Morristown centers on a recently discovered letter written by Richard Wagner to King Ludwig II, discussing the former’s Ring operas. The unique letter is part of the Morristown NHP’s collections and its chief of cultural resources, Jude Pfister, will be there to discuss it.
A friendship between Pfister and Butts began in 2007 on an auspicious note — literally with a note. Pfister attended a BONJ concert and sent Butts an email of admiration along with a surprising query. Butts recounted Pfister’s email as something like this: “I have a 1693 manuscript of a Scarlatti opera. Would you be interested in looking at it?”
Butts laughed and continued, “My first thought was, okay, somebody’s pulling my leg here because you don’t just find a 1693 manuscript of any kind, let alone an opera!” It was no joke. The work was Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Giuditta, a Baroque oratorio. Butts edited the manuscript and the BONJ premiered the work in 2008; he believes this was in its first modern-day performance.
Pfister’s collection is a font of creativity for Butts. In 2019, it led to another BONJ premiere, inspired by the published poems of Phillis Wheatley, a mid-18th century Black author. Butts turned two of her poems into song settings, which will be played at the July 31 concert at the Madison Community Arts Center alongside new works from various composers. This aligns with BONJ’s core value of commissioning and premiering new works, as Butts believes “it is important to provide opportunities for composers to have their works heard and for audiences to explore beyond the familiar, while at the same time recognizing that the popular and familiar are so because they are special.”
August events include a cabaret concert in an informal setting (BYO food and drink) at Grace Church in Madison, where local singers will perform light opera and Broadway hits. Butts said that the cabaret has been part of the festival from the beginning, “as a chance for all of us to explore a different side of the music and to provide an opportunity for young singers to perform.” The festival closes on Aug. 21 at Madison Community Arts Center with an orchestra concert in collaboration with the New York Classical Music Society, presenting music from the 18th through 21st centuries.
Opera fans will have to sit tight. Prior to the pandemic, the festival always featured a semi-staged opera. Butts explained many factors for this year’s absence, including the artists’ comfort levels (“Artists are a little bit leery of being that close together so often for rehearsals”), costs (“Our finances got hit by COVID so it was a question of if we could afford to”) and time constraints (“Even when opera is semi-staged, it’s still a lot of extra rehearsals”).
What about dream programming? Butts mentioned Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
“I would love to actually perform an opera and stage it over several performances. In 2005-2008, I conducted with the orchestra, in concert, Wagner’s Die Walküre, Das Rheingold and Siegfried, so my dream would be to perform Götterdämmerung and complete the cycle. As it is, I am the only conductor, and we are the only orchestra, to have performed three of the Ring operas in New Jersey. So it’d be great to complete the Nibelungenlied.”
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