A scene from the Colorado Symphony's Christmas Concert.  

(Photo: Courtesy of Colorado Symphony)
Quick quiz: Who's on the podium for this weekend's Christmas concerts by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Boulder Philharmonic? Answer: Does it matter? 

If you must know, both orchestras will perform without their music directors. Instead, the CSO's Andrew Litton and the Boulder Phil's Michael Butterman will pass the baton to staff conductors Scott O'Neil and Travis Jürgens, respectively. 

Not that audiences should mind. 

"Santa will steal the show anyway," quipped Tony Pierce, the CSO's Vice President of Artistic Administration, referring to the beloved Colorado Christmas extravaganzas at Boettcher Hall. 

Sure, it'd be nice to have Litton on hand this weekend -- but let's get realistic, Pierce continued. "It does not make sense to spend heavily on a podium presence for these concerts. The holiday season is critical for (the CSO) from a revenue stream perspective. I'd rather use Andrew for more creative projects." 

No offense to fans of Colorado Christmas, but he's right: It's probably best to belt-tighten where possible -- and a Christmas concert doesn't cry out for an expensive conductor already saddled with other commitments. What's more, this orchestra is not the only musical organization watching its bottom line at year's end. 

It turns out that many others enlist the services of conductors-in-waiting, or reasonably-priced guest maestros who specialize in Handelian or carol-filled programming. 

Just look around: In the Bay Area, choral director Ragnar Bohlin steps up for music director Michael Tilson Thomas at San Francisco Symphony performances of Messiah and a pops-flavored program, 'Twas the Night, while Randall Craig Fleischer conducts a family-friendly Christmas Matinee with The Snowman. 

In the Windy City, Duain Wolfe (choral director there, as well as in Denver) leads Riccard Muti's Chicago Symphony in Welcome Yule!

The New York Philharmonic welcomes Broadway veteran Ted Sperling for, naturally, A Broadway Christmas, with guest vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell (who, it should be noted, had debuted this program with the Colorado Symphony). 

So where, one wonders, are the Big Cheeses during all these concerts? 

A scene from the Colorado Symphony's Christmas Concert.

(Photo: Courtesy of Colorado Symphony)
That depends. As Pierce pointed out, "Many music directors spend the entire year away from their families. This is a time when they get to be with them." He quickly added that last December, all the Littons wintered here when the maestro conducted performances of Hansel and Gretel, as well as the Dec. 31 Night in Vienna concert (Karajan, remember, used to love concertizing on New Year's in the real Vienna). 

Meanwhile, up in Boulder, the absence of Michael Butterman, the Phil's music director, is easily explained. 

"Michael has commitments with other orchestras," said executive director Kevin Shuck. "He lives in Louisiana, where he's music director of the Shreveport Symphony, and also works with orchestras in Rochester and Jacksonville. It's a very busy calendar." 

And so, associate conductor Jürgens will preside at weekend performances in Beaver Creek and Boulder, where the program is heavily classical (Bach, Corelli and, of course, Handel). Though Butterman will be missed at these holiday programs -- surprisingly, the first time the Phil has served up wintertime fare -- Shuck stressed that "programming trumps all." 

That said, he did admit that "Michael is very charismatic," and that the success of these two programs, each a near-sellout, has inspired Shuck to see if Butterman could be scheduled in Colorado for late 2014 -- though family and a Louisiana Christmas may be too big a pull for the conductor. 

Not every maestro disappears for some quality time with the wife and kids. 

This weekend, when Wolfe isn't presiding at holiday pops in Chicago, renowned conductor Christoph Eschenbach will lead the orchestra in some decidedly unseasonal fare, ending with Bruckner's Ninth. Makes sense: Big names ought to conduct Big Music. 

Not that Denver remains starless during the holidays. 

For 15 years, CSO audiences have flocked to Boettcher to tap their toes to a gospel version of Messiah, dubbed Too Hot to Handel. The main attraction has always been the orchestra's conductor laureate, Marin Alsop. 

But now, for the first time, she'll be missing the late-December performances. Alsop graciously apologized in a note on the orchestra's Web site, reassuring fans that her "friend and protégé," Leslie Stifelman, will carry on just fine on the podium. 

So, maybe it does matter who wields the baton. 

By now, CSO audiences have become familiar enough with their dependable resident conductor O'Neil, who leads every manner of pops and educational program tossed his way. But this town can't realistically expect busy superstars (and their high fees) to come to Denver. 

CSO administrator Pierce recognizes that, as he wonders, "If you stopped people on the 16th Street Mall, how many of them would know who Riccardo Muti is?"

CONCERT INFO:    
Boulder Philharmonic 
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21 in the Vilar Center, Beaver Creek
2:00 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22 in Mountain View Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Pl., Boulder
Limited ticket availability
 
Colorado Symphony
Colorado Christmas
7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20
2:30 and 6  p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22
Too Hot to Handel    
7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 28-29
A Night in Vienna      
6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31
All performances in Boettcher Concert Hall.
 
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.