The Baroque Orchestra of NJ will perform comforting chestnuts along with new creations during a month-long festival
The job sometimes requires Maestro Robert W. Butts to come to work in a tuxedo, but don’t let that put you off. He is as approachable and respectful as possible. He is a man of art and letters, passionate about his partnerships. There are many, and they go far beyond Madison, where he oversees the New Jersey Baroque Orchestra. In Paris, for example, he recently conducted his work for ensemble and viola, “Strings along the Seine”.
The BONJ founder spoke to 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 travels to venues in Morris County, offering three concerts, a cabaret and a symposium.
He is passionate about music and its musicians, most of whom live within 25 miles of Madison and some of whom have been with the orchestra since its inception in 1996. It’s a mutual love and prized, as the annals of the Classical music abounds with arrogant masters of “tough love” who lead their orchestras with an iron fist.
Does Butts float like a butterfly or sting like a bee? “I think musicians would most likely describe me as both nurturing and egalitarian – I’d like to think I’m more in the Abbado/Chailly/Pappano sphere,” he said, referring to a trio of international conductors known for their kindness. synergy with their orchestras.
Butts founded the summer festival in 2006 and serves as its artistic director. Its programming organizes a wide range of music from all eras and styles. This year’s festival focuses on rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered arts and cultural venues around the world and put organizations in shock on hiatus. The BONJ took up the challenge.
“We are a small orchestra with very small resources and yet we have done a lot,” he said of his initiatives during the shutdowns. The 2020 summer festival was entirely virtual. Last year’s edition was streamlined to two free concerts at the Madison Community Arts Center, a venue that can accommodate outdoor seating.
This year is modest compared to pre-pandemic festivals, and some concerts are still free, “as a way to give live music back to the community,” Butts said. He also changed the lineup to include more baroque chestnuts, “so there’s a level of comfort in going back 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 moved into conducting in the early 90s, mainly with early music ensembles.
He founded 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 New Jersey Baroque Orchestra,” he said.
Over time, he explains, the orchestra has expanded its repertoire and kept its name “even if we are no longer content to play music from the 18th century, because we have, over the past 25 years, developed an audience and notoriety”.
He first thought of making BONJ an orchestra of period instruments. This meant engaging in historically informed performances, or HIPs, that play ancient music exactly as it was played in its time, on period instruments. Ultimately, he decided against it because it would limit the scope of the orchestra’s repertoire and young musicians generally could not afford both modern and period instruments.
Moreover, Butts’ style as a conductor goes beyond the role of guardian of the score. “I think the score is a guide and should be followed as closely as possible, but at the same time the score should be open to nuances and differences in interpretation,” he said, adding “I am not a purist, of course – at least not entirely. I believe more in finding the spirit and the depth of a piece of music, which allows the interpretation to say something and to touch both the performers and listeners.
Among the best qualities in his conductor’s toolbox are intuition and respect. “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 that enhances music, whether it’s mine or Mozart’s or whoever it is. So I give the impression that 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 city’s most underserved neighborhoods with hands-on music education and keyboard lessons. BONJ’s opening concert on July 17 will feature some of the students performing works co-composed with Butts.
“My biggest hope for the collaboration is just – corny as it sounds – to make the world a better place in the only way that I know personally, and that is with my work,” he says. “I think my main focus is the idea of bringing people together, recognizing diversity and unity, sharing the day, the world, life and music.”
Another rewarding BONJ collaboration is with Morristown National Historical Park. The July 23 festival symposium at the Washington Siege Museum in Morristown focuses on a newly discovered letter written by Richard Wagner to King Ludwig II, discussing the Ring operas of old. The unique letter is part of the collections of the Morristown NHP and its head 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 admiring email with a surprising request. Butts recounted Pfister’s email as something like this: “I have a 1693 manuscript of an opera by Scarlatti. Would you be interested in watching it?
Butts laughed and continued, “My first thought was, okay, somebody pull my leg here because you’re not just doing that. to find a manuscript of 1693, whatever it is, not to mention an opera! It wasn’t a joke. The work was La Giuditta by Alessandro Scarlatti, a Baroque oratorio. Butts edited the manuscript, and BONJ premiered the work in 2008; he thinks it was in its earliest modern depiction.
The Pfister collection is a source of creativity for Butts. In 2019, this led to another BONJ premiere, inspired by the published poems of Phillis Wheatley, a mid-18th century black author. Butts has turned two of his poems into songs, which will be performed at the July 31 concert at the Madison Community Arts Center alongside new works by various composers. This aligns with BONJ’s core value of commissioning and creating new work, as Butts believes that “it is important to offer composers the opportunity to have their works heard and audiences to explore beyond the familiar , while recognizing that the popular and the familiar are popular 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 operas and Broadway hits. Butts said the cabaret had been part of the festival from the start, “as a chance for all of us to explore another side of music and give young singers a chance to perform”. The festival concludes August 21 at the Madison Community Arts Center with an orchestral concert in conjunction with the New York Classical Music Society, featuring music from the 18th to 21st centuries.
Opera fans should stay seated. Before the pandemic, the festival always featured semi-staged opera. Butts explained many factors for this year’s absence, including artists’ comfort level (“Artists are a little wary of being so close so often for rehearsals”), costs (“Our finances have been impacted by COVID, so it was a matter of whether we could afford it”) and time constraints (“Even when the opera is half-staged, there are still a lot of extra rehearsals”).
What about dream programming? Butts mentioned Wagner’s ring cycle.
“I would love to perform an opera and stage it over several performances. In 2005-2008, I conducted with the orchestra, in concert, Die Walküre, Das Rheingold and Siegfried by Wagner, so my dream would be to play Götterdämmerung and complete the cycle. In fact, I’m the only conductor, and we’re the only orchestra, to have performed three of the Ring operas in New Jersey. So it would be great to finish the Nibelungenlied.
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