Creating wide-ranging playlists, learning while homeschooling
By Peter Alexander April 22 at 7:05 p.m.
NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts about musicians with Boulder connections, and what they are doing while they can’t rehearse or perform. You can expect a non-formal photo to accompany each story.
Michael Christie is listening to music. A lot of music.
Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder 2001-13 is spending the COVID-19 quarantine at this home in Minneapolis. Because his wife is a physician, a large part of his time is taken with homeschooling their two children while she is on the front lines of the pandemic.
So far he has posted 10 lists, nine that reflect his own thoughts, and one in collaboration with composer Kevin Puts, whose opera Silent Night Christie conducted at Minnesota Opera in 2011. The complete opera serves as the anchor piece of “Jukebox #8.”
It turns out there is a lot of listening involved in creating each playlist. He has to not only select the pieces, but also the individual performances of those pieces. “The process of selecting the pieces encourages me to listen to full albums,” he says. “So that I’ve enjoyed, but the tricky part is that I’ve tried to keep the bites fairly digestible, except for the showpiece of each list.”
The playlists are a way for Christie, who is now music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to stay in touch with audiences during the pandemic. “I observed as COVID was shutting things down that people were hunkering down—hunkering down in their homes but also hunkering down in their own areas of expertise, musically,” he says.
“I thought ’what a pity!’ These people listen to a lot of other things, and yet they’re only talking about the narrow window that they’re professionally working in. That was the genesis of the playlists, and then it was trying to make sure that I was being faithful to that by looking at 400 years of music then saying, ‘Alright, what’s interesting’?”
One feature of Christie’s playlists that will seem familiar to those who recall his years with CMF is the breadth of the music that he finds interesting. It includes portions of standard classical repertoire by Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini, Dvořák and others that you would expect. But there is also world music; jazz by Branford, Wynton and the late Ellis Marsalis; Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beatles and Radiohead; an excerpt from Hamilton; stunning Baroque selections by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claudio Monteverdi; newer music from Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass; and even Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five.
From creating his own lists it was an easy step to start asking other musicians what they were listening to. “I thought people are going to get sick of hearing my thoughts, and also, I’ll run out of ideas eventually,” he says. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people, and no one has said no yet.
“The interesting thing is that all of the composers that I’ve been in contact with have said, we’re using this time to catch up. They’re so busy right now taking advantage of the time to not be traveling, and as a consequence they get to focus in a different way.”
Christie says he learns as much homeschooling his two children, ages five and 11, as they do. “It’s a big learning process every day,” he says. “It definitely takes more patience and a different time scale. Time has to stretch out to flow with the day a bit more. Things that they do in 25 minutes in school take more time than that. But there are so many resources online, that’s amazing!
“Mercifully this is happening in springtime. If this was happening in November, I think—boy! Stuck in the cold and snow? I just can’t even imagine.”
But he definitely relishes the time spent at home. “The children are very different, but curious about the world, clever and sympathetic,” he says. “Being home steadily after years on the road is a great joy!”
Christie spends some of his time planning for his next season at the New West Symphony, particularly the new pieces that the orchestra will introduce. One feature of the concerts began at CMF as “Intermission Insights” interviews. The New West Symphony now has “Entr’acte Composers,” in which a composer is introduced at the beginning of intermission in a conversation with Christie, much as occured at CMF. Later, their piece is played first thing after intermission, giving the audience members the choice to linger in the lobby or hear the new work.
“So far, we’ve only had a handful of people willingly not listen to the new piece,” he says. “The vast majority stay for the interview, like they did in Boulder, and the vast majority come back for the new piece. I’m very careful about what that new piece is, and trying to get [it into a] five- to eight-minute time frame.
“But it’s great, because people have the opportunity to interact with the artist, and people have the opportunity to hear something they’ve never heard before at every concert.”
And in that respect, Christie is not doing anything new at all, quarantine or no quarantine. It’s what he did at CMF, and what he now does for audiences in Thousand Oaks.
You can access all of Christie’s playlists at Michael Christie’s Jukebox.