Arts & Culture » Stage

Conversing with Ballet Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic

On tradition, innovation, and 'The Nutcracker'

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Peter Anastos and Robert Franz coincidentally arrived in Boise on the same day in 2007. They had each been tasked to take over the artistic helm at one of Boise's longest-running, best-known arts organizations: Ballet Idaho and Boise Philharmonic, respectively. Franz inherited a solid orchestra but one in need of funding; Anastos came into a bisected ballet company that had to be built from the ground up. Since they've been here, Anastos and Franz have become great friends and well respected members of their companies and the community at large. They have also worked to elevate their organizations' creative output and find opportunities—and funding—with which they can collaborate more with other arts organizations and with each other. One such collaboration, their traditional holiday offering, The Nutcracker, will take the stage for five performances Dec.19-21 at the Morrison Center (Franz, who will be out of town, will confidently hand over the conductor's wand to Boise Youth Philharmonic Orchestra's new artistic director, Deanna Tham).

Boise Weekly talked to Anastos and Franz about how their organizations have evolved in seven years, the importance of balancing heritage with innovation and a parking space in perpetuity.

Boise Weekly: How has your organization changed in seven years?

Robert Franz: We've had a slow but steady change over the last seven years. If you took a snapshot now as opposed to seven years ago, it's a very different orchestra. Artistically, every music director comes in with their own ideas of what they want to do. For me, it's two things: One is collaborating with our partners in the community—we've done a lot of that on stage in the past seven years. The second thing is about us performing a large repertoire that really fills the Morrison Center, so I've worked really hard to build the sound of the orchestra that's large enough to fill the Morrison Center in a real visceral way for the audience.

Peter Anastos: It's quite different for me. Robert inherited an orchestra and he, I think, transformed that orchestra. I heard them when I auditioned for the job [at Ballet Idaho]. After Robert came, it was quite a different orchestra and as he says, it has continued to change over the seven years—incrementally but, boy, is it thrilling. It's a thrilling orchestra, so that's a big treat for all of us who came from another place and expect to hear great music. It's absolutely fabulous.

I came to no company at all. When I started, the board of directors had decided to sever with Eugene Ballet, so I had to build from scratch, which was really exciting. The major reason I said yes [to taking the position] was because I had a chance to build a company from scratch. It too, as the orchestra has changed, has changed incrementally over the years. Both organizations have made a lot of progress—not to pat ourselves on the head but both are approaching the national standard of excellence. ... The Phil is probably already there. People come here from out of town and they're just shocked at how great these organizations are. They weren't expecting much. They come to Boise, Idaho, and they're expecting nothing.

RF: That's entirely true for the ballet, too.The past seven years has been extraordinary.

PA: To use Robert's words, we fill the Morrison Center, too. We have an academy, so we can get these big ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty on stage. We are also filling the Morrison Center and the Morrison Center is filling up.

RF: It's such a big space...

PA: It's huge.

RF: So you can't just put, like, five dancers on the stage. You can't put a chamber orchestra of 20 players. It's a big barn of a place. You have to have a company that's not only big enough but deep enough. For the musicians, for sure, we have to have depth of playing to really make the sound fill the hall.

How do you keep your longtime loyal audiences yet also entice new ones?

RF: First and foremost for me, and I'm sure for Peter, too, is that the artistic level has to be as high as it possibly can be. That is absolutely the most important reason anyone of any age comes to any event whatsoever—for sure, it's the most important reason they return. When they come for the first time, it could be some great marketing ploy but once that marketing is over, if the event isn't at the highest artistic level and really engaging and compelling, they aren't going to return. So, my focus, above and beyond everything else, is how do I keep pushing our orchestra to keep growing. It has kept growing over the last seven years, and that's really what has attracted our audiences. Our audiences, much like Peter, has seen the development and is on board with it. They're like, "Wow. We know that the next time we come to the Philharmonic, it's going to be better than last time, or something is going to exceed our expectations." Because of that, I think the Philharmonic is in the position of being a dynamic, vibrant organization and when we add to that component the connections in the community that we've made and are making, I think that attracts new, different, various audiences and keeps our audiences that we have.

You know when we look at it, on an average concert weekend, we have a couple thousand people—between Nampa and Boise—that come to the Boise Philharmonic. That's huge. For a city our size, that's not unsuccessful. Now I don't want to make it sound like we're not looking for new audiences, because we are, but we're not pounding our heads against the wall thinking, "Oh, woe is us. The Philharmonic may die tomorrow." For us, it's quite the opposite. For us, with a successful audience base, the question is: How do we keep pushing the envelope? And that's really my job. That's artistically what I can do. The Phil staff is doing the same thing in their areas—they're trying to keep the pressure on, keep the heat on, keep growing, keep developing but first and foremost, if we don't have me doing what I'm doing with the artistic side, no matter what they do, it won't work.

PA: Your question is about ... the standard repertoire you think the old people like, but we do it all. We can do it all. In the 21st century, you have this huge, gigantic treasure trove of literature from the past. At the same time, [we're] playing all the music and dancing all the ballets that are being created today, tomorrow and next week. This year, the Ballet is doing more contemporary work than we've done in the past, but we still do the big, classical ballets like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. We will always do those things because that's our heritage. As Beethoven is the Philharmonic's heritage, Tchaikovsky is ours. So we will always do that stuff but we can also trot out some really incredible progressive, contemporary stuff. Even at the Phil, Robert is programming some really interesting modern music, and the people you think would like it least like it the best. We find there's not such a division in the audiences any more. There's a lot of crossover: Some young people love the classics, love tutus. Some older people really like the modern stuff. Audiences aren't predictable any more. That's one of the more interesting parts about the Boise audience and the Idaho audience: They're very savvy about what's good. They can't be fooled and they can't be tricked. And they're curious.

RF: Curiosity is the key. Our audience base really is the Discovery Channel/History Channel people. Not the ones who watch Pawn Stars but the ones who are genuinely curious about the world around them.

PA: I watch Pawn Stars. It's funny.

RF: I know, but it's less curious than say, like, How Things Are Made. You know what I mean...

PA: Yes, yes.

Big grants from big companies are a thing of the past. How do you make up for that?

PA: Those big companies don't exist anymore. I'm sure Robert will agree, funding is always a struggle. You're always working at it. Listen—there is never a break from fundraising. Summer, fall, winter, spring, there is never a break...

RF: Even in the best environment. It's not true to think about "the grand ol' days," whether there are major companies or not. And when there are major companies, there are more arts groups, and they are more competitive. The process really isn't any different.

PA: But Boise has a reputation for being generous to the arts. What has to happen as new generations come forward and older generations go away, is a sense of responsibility for the culture. What people have to understand is that people with means have to be responsible for the culture and they have to ask themselves, "What kind of culture do I want to live in? What kind of atmosphere do I want my kids and grandkids to grow up in? What sort of a place do I want this to be?" If you want it to have a healthy cultural landscape, you have to fund it.

I frankly don't prefer the government coming in and giving a lot of money. In Europe, that works, but I would quibble about the quality of some of the smaller houses and the fact that they're so spoiled and entitled probably doesn't help the artistic product. We have to struggle for this, so it's really precious and important to us. People have to take personal responsibility for that culture and there's only one way to do that: They have to fund it.

As the generations change, it's the older generations that grew up with the understanding that it was their responsibility. I think nowadays, it's easier for a person to buy a third or fourth house or a second or third boat than to contribute to the arts. That could be a problem.

What do future collaborations look like?

PA: I'd like to see the orchestra play for everything we do. We'd like to collaborate with them all the time.

RF: We'd love to do the same thing. We'd love to be in the [orchestra] pit all the time.

PA: We could put this together. It would be difficult, but we could put it together if the funding was there. Robert has talked about a pit orchestra since I first got here. It would be different: It wouldn't be the Boise Philharmonic, it would be the Boise Philharmonic Pit Orchestra—a great orchestra in that big, juicy pit in the Morrison Center.

RF: In a funny way, it would be a very sort of European tradition. In Europe, the orchestras are opera orchestras and they play on stage. That's how orchestras got started, that's how orchestras function nowadays. With our Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, it would be a natural thing to have the Boise Philharmonic in the pit for all the events that occur out of this block [between Fulton and Grove streets and Eighth and Ninth streets]. For me, the dream has always been to get the orchestra in the pit another eight or nine weeks of the year.

PA: It's all money.

RF: My mantra has always been, if we can find donors who want to do it in perpetuity, who want to say, "We want a pit orchestra for as long as the city is around," we would need an endowment. It would be X number of dollars and it would go into a fund that we could only use the interest from. That would fund the pit orchestra forever.

PA: But someone would have to create that fund. It's probably a couple million dollars.

RF: I'd say it's a minimum of $5 million.

PA: If someone wants to park that kind of money, we have a parking space for them.