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Get To Know Michael Christie

Age: 43. Born June 30, 1974

Home base: Minneapolis

Status: Married with two young children

Current position: Music Director of the Minnesota Opera

Performance dates: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10; 3 p.m. Feb. 11; 8 p.m. Feb. 12. Christie will give a pre-concert interview one hour before each performance. To view a video of the conductor, go to srsymphony.org

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

Tickets: From $29

Reservations: 707-546-8742 or online at srsymphony.org

Conductor Michael Christie has amassed an impressive resume since he received an “outstanding potential” prize at the First International Sibelius Conductor’s Competition in Helsinki at the age of 21.

Now 43, Christie is at the top of his game, having forged an international career in Europe, the U.S. and Australia while proving himself a musical adventurer through his innovative programming with the Minnesota Opera, where he has served as Music Director since 2012.

Last July, for example, he conducted the premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera, a project that drew upon talent from the Minnesota Opera. According to the MinnPost, Christie “presided in the pit ... giving careful guidance to the pulsating yet delicate electro-acoustic score by the 40-year-old Mason Bates.”

Stints at symphonies such as the Queensland Orchestra (2001-2004), Phoenix Symphony (2005-2013) and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (2005-2010) round out the career of this former wunderkind, not to mention his 13-year tenure as music director the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder and guest conducting gigs all over the world.

Christie — the fifth and final music conductor candidate to try out with the Santa Rosa Symphony this season as a successor to Bruno Ferrandis — will lead the orchestra this Saturday, Feb. 10, through Monday Feb. 12 in a colorful program of Bernstein, Prokofiev and Dvorak at the Green Music Center. He also conducted the orchestra in January 2015, when he arranged for fiddler Mark O’Connor to perform with his wife in the first half of the program before tackling his own Fiddle Concerto after intermission. The concert ended on a colorful note with Copland’s “El Sálon México”

“I’m not afraid to look at how the menu of the concert is set up,” Christie said in a phone interview in September. “I really felt like, ‘Let’s wrap it up with something quick, splashy and fun for the orchestra.’”

A former trumpet player, Christie is known for his clear conducting of even the most challenging scores and for his strong rapport with musicians.

“Having played in lots of orchestras gives me a good idea of what the orchestra musicians are experiencing, especially those who are far away from the podium, ” Christie said. “Unlike a keyboard player, I have a pretty good sense of the canon ... and I’ve tried to implement successful rehearsals.”

Christie likes to make small tweaks to traditional program formats in an effort to create a better experience for audiences. He likes to provide variety in programming and to balance the expectations of every audience member in the hall, a challenge he finds as rigorous as it is rewarding.

“When you have about 1,500 people in a space, everybody comes there wanting their own experience,” he said. “Some people just want music. Some people want to know what’s going on. Trying to find a balance is really fascinating for me.”

Here is an edited version of our interview with Christie, who lives in Minneapolis with his wife Alexis, a pulmonary critical care doctor; daughter, Sinclair, 9, and son Beckett, 3.

What will the symphony musicians enjoy about working with you?

I’m very much about making the experience of the concert fun and entertaining, and having an open mind about what people should experience. I’d like to think that I would be able to give the musicians a broad view of the repertory, and hopefully, get them as engaged as possible with the audience there, who really struck me. They’re magnificent. I really felt like the audience was very actively engaged in what was happening, and I felt like they had great pride in the orchestra.

So they can expect artistic leadership and also community leadership ... it’s the music director’s job to be a bit of a curator and help people find different ways through what we’ve selected, and a lot of that is how we interact with the audience and break down the barrier by speaking to them. With the hall and the surround seating, we already have the benefit of people being able to surround the orchestra.

What ideas do you have to engage and grow the audience here, and can you give an example of what you’ve already done with other orchestras?

I have for a long time done interviews of guest artists immediately after they’ve done their concerto, usually at intermission, and give the audience a chance to ask questions. Let’s say there is a 20-minute intermission. The soloist and I will stay out there, and for 10 minutes, we do a Q & A. And the people who want to get a drink and go to the bathroom can leave.

I also did some crazy things. For anyone who wanted to sit on the stage, I’d have them leave their ticket stubs with the usher, and we’d draw their names. It gives people a chance to be a little bit closer to what’s happening.

I’ve got a few other arrows in my quiver that I know work and am really eager to fine-tune them with another group ... There are a lot of compelling artists that do things that aren’t just violin and piano concertos. I worked with a life-size puppeteer, Basil Twist, and he brought all these puppeteers and did a presentation of (Stravinsky’s) “Petrouchka.” I wanted the audience to see that the music is a ballet and is meant to be danced.

In this day and age, everything is so much about the user experience, and as an arts organization, we have to leave a little bit of time in our thinking about designing that user experience ... you have to be sensitive about what actually makes that experience great.

What is your programming philosophy and how do you plan to keep concerts exciting for everyone?

My philosophy overall is that variety is key. Especially with music that the audience might not know. I try to imagine my wife sitting in the audience. What would she get out of this? If the music is obscure and crazy ... then I won’t pick that piece. I try to marry variety with that first listening. What will people get out of it if they only hear it once?

As the music director and curator, you are laying out people’s trail through a museum, and it has to be there for a specific reason. Is it worth doing for them and for us as performers?

Where do you see classical music going in the future, and how would you take this orchestra in that direction?

The future is very community specific ... that’s why I’m putting my chips in the experience basket, because I really believe that there’s not many other opportunities for people to experience live performances of instrumental music.

We can’t just say “Love us because we’re playing Brahms.” It’s got to have more meaning. I just had the feeling, from that week with the orchestra and the audience, that there’s a real sense that people are engaged in the arts there. So you really feel that energy.

There is so much presented in that hall, so it’s not like this is a surprise. It’s a matter of how we do it going forward? It’s going to be a mix of the standards and this enormous palette we get from all over the world and helping people understand what’s going on. That’s an enormous component to being successful.

What instruments do you play and how does that experience serve you in your role as conductor?

I got my degree in trumpet performance at Oberlin, and I’d like to think that ... playing in lots of orchestras gives me a good idea of what the orchestra musicians are experiencing ... and I try to be aware of their needs.

One of the challenges for many California orchestras is that they only play together a couple times a month. How do we establish the relationship with them and decide how we’re going to do things in the hall? How do we get quickly into the mindset of that space?

Those musicians are busy and racing all over, and when they arrive, how do they have confidence in the conductor? For a goal, you want the Santa Rosa Symphony experience for our musicians to be the very best of all the orchestras that they play in.

Why do you want to come to Sonoma County, and how much time can you spend here?

First of all, I was really struck by how the audience and the orchestra felt with each other in that space. It was a very fertile ground.

It’s been a lot of fun being in opera, but at the same time, I’ve got 20 years worth of great orchestral experience, and I want to keep refining that.

The music director needs to be as involved as possible. So I will learn more about what the optimal time commitment would be as the process unfolds.

Being an American music director is a very involved experience. It’s a wild job in a lot of ways. You have to be able to sell the vision and be an ambassador, performer, fundraiser and a bit of a psychologist, not only for the musicians but for the board. You’re a planner and a collaborator with the staff. It’s not a job that anybody gets trained specifically to do. If I got the position, this would be my sixth music director position in my life.

Conducting is your favorite thing. What is your second favorite thing?

Family is at the forefront of everything, but among non-family things, I love flying. It’s a source of great joy, especially as a hobby. I have a Mooney, low-wing, single-engine prop plane. I did my flight training in my early 20s, and got my license when I was 24. If I can fly without stopping for fuel, then I can beat the airlines. But as soon as you have to make a stop, the curve works against you.

Can you talk about the program you’ll be leading?

One of the big things I wanted to do was to be part of Bernstein’s centenary (he was born in 1918), and it’s important for any orchestra to nod its cap and appreciate how important he was. I thought it would be fun to present a piece that is a little bit off the beaten trail (“On the Waterfront”.) It’s jazzy and very lyrical, and there’s a lot of rhythm, which directly correlates with “West Side Story.” It speaks to variety, because he’s a well-known composer, but let’s look at him from a little bit different angle.

The orchestra assigned everybody soloists and gave us some choices about what the soloists were willing to do. The Prokofiev (Piano Concerto No. 3 (performed by Anna Fedorova) is great for the audience and has a lot of vibrancy, and it’s a great showpiece for the pianist.

Then they asked us to look at the repertory from the last five years and pick a standard piece that hasn’t been done in that time frame. That’s the motivation for the Dvorak (Symphony No. 9). That’s what people could imagine me thinking of doing in future programming.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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