By Phillip Ratliff
Photo by Beau Gustafson
It was the eve of Y2K when I found myself roaming the streets of Southside with cellist Craig Hultgren, eager to usher in the New Year, a new decade, and, as the public imagined it in those days, a new dystopian millennium. Hultgren and I walked around a beer and muffin hotspot known then as The Mill, a place that eventually became The Grill before transmogrifying into the steakhouse, MetroPrime. And I’m sure at some point we talked about what we invariably get around to talking about: contemporary music.
The year 2000 marked, within about 18 months, what would be the halfway point of Hultgren’s time in Birmingham. Hultgren arrived in the Magic City in 1982—a young cellist joining a vital, vibrant regional orchestra, the Alabama Symphony, on the brink of hard times. The conductor in those days was Amerigo Marino. Hultgren, newly minted from the world-famous Indiana School of Music, had no intention of staying in Birmingham for long. “I spent first years playing auditions,” he says. “I took every audition I could and even got into the finals in Chicago and Columbus.”
As is often the case with musicians who audition too much, the process began to take its toll. Hultgren’s audition technique deteriorated, Hultgren says, and the thought of staying in Birmingham began to seem less and less onerous.
In 1990, eight years into his ASO tenure, Hultgren made a discovery that would bind him heart and soul to Birmingham and shape the course of his music career for the next 25 years.
“That’s when I discovered improvisation,” Hultgren says.
In Birmingham’s contemporary music scene, Craig Hultgren and improvisation have become synonymous terms, but some clarification is in order. Hultgren is especially gifted in freestyle improvisation, an approach that begins with much looser constraints than those provided by, say, the chord progressions of jazz. We might find a better analogy in skateboarding or BMX biking. It’s just an artist engaged in sublimely pure self expression. Hultgren and I once had a rather theoretical (and, in retrospect, pointless) argument over whether the visual art of Jackson Pollock provided an apt comparison. I thought not, since I suspected Pollock knew up front the overall design he was working toward. Hultgren thought so, because what happens with the brush and bow at the gestural level are so similar.
Improvisation ushered in a new chapter in Hultgren’s musical life. He grew as an artist and arts administrator. He launched a series of improvisational recitals with guitarist Davey Williams and violinist Ladonna Smith, working in a gallery space on Second Avenue North. In 1991, he took over the presidency of the Birmingham Art Association. He pulled off one improv performance a week as president, even as he kept his day job with the Alabama Symphony. Hultgren, Williams, and Smith inaugurated the Birmingham Improv Festival, which went on to enjoy a 12-year run. It was an amazingly prolific time for Hultgren, performing whatever contemporary music he could find, developing a new openness to music—a regular “four-string whore,” he jokes.
It’s remarkable that Hultgren’s most fertile period was also his most financially challenging. In 1993, the ASO went bankrupt, forcing many symphony colleagues out of Birmingham in search of paying work. Hultgren, however, stuck it out. He was pleased to find that, untethered from day-in, day-out orchestral playing, his creative output increased. He took on students, at ASFA, Montevallo, and Birmingham-Southern, after other symphony musicians departed and teaching gigs opened up. Discovering his resilience, reinventing himself into yet another form of bankable musician, built confidence in Hultgren. “It was the best time of my life,” he says.
After 33 years in Birmingham, almost all of those in the ASO cello section and 25 of those as arguably Birmingham’s most passionate, prolific contemporary classical music advocate, Hultgren is returning to his home state of Iowa. He leaves in part because of family obligations. His father has Parkinson’s, and his uncle, an inoperable brain tumor. He’ll live on his aunt and uncle’s 12-acre horse farm in the northeastern corner of Iowa, he says, and there, he will forge a new identity. He’ll help his aunt and uncle run the farm’s daily operations. He’ll convert the farm’s machine shop into his studio. By mid-July, Craig Hultgren, Birmingham’s indefatigable new music champion, will become, most surely, Iowa’s hardest working farmer/cellist.
“Now is the time to devote myself to new music. Next year I will perform in Weill Hall in New York. And instead of having to hightail it back to the next orchestral service, I will be able to tour. I’ll go back to Europe for extended periods. I never had those opportunities when I was bound by contract to the orchestra. I have enough creative work to last me the rest of my life,” Hultgren says.