Chamber music, Music

A Conductor Thinking Outside the Bachs

A preview by Marc Shulgold

“There’s nothing wrong with classical music,” David Rutherford insisted. Among those who love it, you’ll find no argument. But then, what about all those other folks? The ones who feel fear or intimidation or uncertainty or discomfort in a concert environment. Rutherford is out to wipe away all those concerns. And it’s really not that hard, he claims. Give a nod to standard pieces, but mix in the unexpected and unknown.

As director of the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra, he’s been energetically changing long-held perceptions of classical concerts. Nothing radical or crazy, mind you: “When people listen with fresh ears, good things can happen. I’m changing the rules just enough, in such a way that it doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable.”

OK, so now and then, he’ll change the rules more than enough. Not long ago, for example, he brought an ensemble to the Denver Art Museum for one of those unpredictable, late-night, end-of-the-month artsy programs known as “Untitled.” He called the event “Unstaged.” Sonnet Hanson, who puts on those programs, described the experience on the City of Denver’s Web site: “They’re all about taking down the barriers between performers and the audience,” she said of Rutherford’s band. “So they invited people to sit in that rarified space that is the orchestra pit. So you’ve got people sitting next to the first violin, and that bow is going right by their nose – it was really cool. And they composed a circular piece, where they looped their instruments and invited people to come up and conduct the loops – they’d bring up the clarinet or bring down the cellos. It was magical.”

Tom Wopat

Tom Wopat

When Rutherford leads Musica Sacra at Augustana Lutheran Church on November 23rd, things won’t be quite that edgy. This will be a pops evening with Broadway star (and former Dukes of Hazzard actor) Tom Wopat, presented as part of the ambitious Augustana Arts series. Nothing wild and nutty, mind you — but still, it’s a program that points up one of the crucial distinctions between the divided worlds of pop and classical. “When you think about it, people have a perceived relationship with pop artists,” Rutherford noted. “There’s a real connection there. In the classical world, we hold an audience at arm’s length. Players are told to show no joy or emotion up there.” It’s the sort of long-held barrier that he hopes to break down.

By the way, if the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the conductor’s day job. Front Range music lovers know Rutherford as the creamy-voiced announcer on Colorado Public Radio‘s classical station (in Denver, it’s KVOD 88.1 FM). But he’s more than (in his words) “a face made for radio.” He’s also a veteran double-bass player and an adjunct teacher of the instrument at Colorado Christian University. Oh yes — and he manages the Web site for Musica Sacra, Just as he does in conversation, Rutherford stresses on the site the ensemble’s fresh approach to making music. “The emphasis is that this is a vibrant orchestra playing off-center programs,” he said. A quick glance at the site, displaying Musica Sacra’s remaining concerts, drives that point home: On Jan. 31, and Feb. 1, the program (titled “1931”) features Ravel’s Piano Concerto, a work by little-known Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas, and a piece by Vincent d’Indy; in March, the chamber chorus, Kantorei, will perform Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Next April, Rutherford and company shift to the Oriental Theater for a program of music and film from the Silent Era.

David Rutherford

David Rutherford

Fun, fascinating stuff — but how to get the word out? “Marketing is tough,” he  acknowledged. “Part of the challenge is the legacy of our title. Originally, the orchestra presented sacred music.” So, how about changing the name? “We discussed it, but we worried that a new name might confuse people.” Thus, the 35-member chamber ensemble keeps a moniker that, let’s face it, doesn’t really match its lively programming — a fact amusingly underscored at the upcoming Augustana concert with Wopat. “Tom will be singing selections from Annie Get Your Gun, along with a selection of standards,” Rutherford reported. And, wouldn’t you know it? Among those hits of the past is Makin’ Whoopee. “That’s an interesting choice in the context of ‘Musica Sacra’,” the conductor quipped.

Singer Tom Wopat will join David Rutherford and the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra in a concert of Broadway and Big Band favorites at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 23, in Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda Ave., in Denver. Information: (303) 388-4962 or

Adult $32 – Senior/Student $16 – Children 5-12 yrs $10
Tickets purchased within 4 days of concerts will be held at “will call” for your arrival at the venue. More advanced purchases will be mailed.




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