Fall Arts

A Quarter Century of Zoltek

Glacier Symphony’s 39th season, Illumination, is the 25th under the direction of conductor/composer John Zoltek.

By Micah Drew
John Zoltek, Music Director and Conductor for Glacier Symphony Orchestra and Chorale on Oct. 7, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last season, the Glacier Symphony focused on small performances, many recorded for remote viewing, which drove the theme of the season, Microcosms. 

This year, artistic director and conductor John Zoltek picked another single word to encapsulate the programming he wanted to bring to the state: Illumination.

 “I really just like the word, it fit with the intuitive feeling of the music I wanted to play this year,” Zoltek said. “It’s kind of the illumination of light on nature — we’re throwing open the gates a bit and focusing on contemporary music.”

The season kicks off with a concert called Ascension on Oct. 30 and 31 featuring violinist Yevgeny Kutik, followed by the Glacier Chorale concert, Reflection, Nov. 13-14, and the symphonic performance Illumination on Nov. 20-21, which will feature guest cellist Robert deMaine. There will also be a special Fusion concert in March that will mix symphonic classical music with Zoltek’s passion as a jazz musician to celebrate his 25th year conducting the symphony. 

“It’s quite surreal for me to contemplate having been the artistic leader of this organization for 25 years, so this season is pretty significant for me but really I’m just hoping we can mount a successful season,” Zoltek said. “I just hope we get back to as normal an operation as we can.”

Glacier Symphony performance. Courtesy photo

Throughout the season, a number of Zoltek’s orchestral works will be performed, including the world premiere of his new cello concerto in November. 

“I don’t always have my pieces on the program each season, so it’s exciting for me and I hope for the musicians, too,” he said. “We need to start doing that a little more anyways, whether my pieces or other living composers. That’s kind of where I want to start moving towards in years to come to try and bridge into more 21st century music.”

Zoltek designed the season’s concerts with the goal of highlighting more contemporary work and balancing the need for variety, the entertainment of the audiences and the practicality of the music selection for the orchestra. 

“Training the orchestra is an ongoing process,” he said. “Playing Beethoven and Mozart requires a totally different mindset and technical approach to instruments than playing Stravinsky or Zoltek. It’s a different language in a way, even though you’re still just reading notes.”

Zoltek’s highlight in the upcoming season is the Illumination concert in November, which will feature the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Robert deMaine, and serve as the world premiere of Zoltek’s newest piece, a full cello concerto composed at deMaine’s request. 

DeMaine, a world renowned cellist who plays on a revered 340-year-old antique Stradivarius cello, has been a soloist with the Glacier Symphony several times and just sat down with Zoltek over Zoom last week to take the first look at the finished piece. 

The full length, three-part concerto, Through Tamarack and Pine, took Zoltek five months to compose — he just finished in September — and is what he calls an abstract meditation on viewing and contemplating nature. 

“It’s not necessarily placid nature music though; there’s a lot of power in the music, so even though it’s inspired by nature, it’s not some sort of tranquil meditation per se,” Zoltek said. “It’s powerful, how you feel when you see a mountain coming out of the clouds. It’s pretty heavy, like hard rock romanticism.”

While Zoltek has composed many pieces for the symphony, including Going to the Sun – Fanfare for Orchestra, which was written for the 100th anniversary of Glacier Park in 2010, he hasn’t written a piece as long as the cello concerto in 15 years. 

“There were days when I would plow ahead and do great work, and then there were days I was stuck in the structure of the piece or details I couldn’t get my head around,” Zoltek said. 

To sit down and write a piece of this magnitude, Zoltek relies on his years of training as a composer to fashion the thematic materials, working out the basic building blocks of the music on his piano. Then with a sketchbook he details out the themes and harmonics before finally sitting down at his desk and writing out the full score for the orchestra and solo cello. 

“The inspiration of this particular piece is derived from what I can see from my property — I have a great view of the mountains peaking through the trees,” he said. “But I wanted to make it an expressionistic interpretation of the energy fields in nature, the energy and power you feel when you’re hiking.”

“I’m not trying to make a happy little Bob Ross painting kind of feeling,” he added. 

While the 39th season of the symphony has not yet kicked off, parts of Zoltek’s mind are already bending towards what the 40th anniversary season will look like. It will be a special season, as the symphony will move its performances from Flathead High School’s auditorium into the new performance hall at Flathead Valley Community College, which will give each concert a more regal, professional feeling, one Zoltek will take into account when he plans out the season’s theme. 

“It could be a big contrast to this season, maybe something like symphonic block busters,” Zoltek said, adding that after decades of pursing music, he never fails to get excited for the next year. “There is literally no end to what you can learn and how you can develop as an artist and musician each year. Even after 25 years, for me to be working with arguably the greatest music ever composed, it’s very fulfilling.”

Glacier Symphony performance. Courtesy photo

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