A Reputation Well Justified: South Dakota Symphony

People in the industry have long held up the South Dakota Symphony as a model of a small orchestra, and having spent two days there I can see why. It performs in Sioux Falls, a city of 150,000 with a metropolitan area of about 200,000. (The entire population of South Dakota is about 750,000, so clearly this is the state's major metropolitan area). The orchestra operates with a balanced budget of around $1.7 million. Six out of the past eight years have been in the black; the two that missed, missed by small amounts...

I met with the orchestra's staff, and with the staff and board of the Washington Pavilion Performing Arts Center, where the orchestra plays. I spoke at a lunch for their Volunteer League, and I also discussed governance with the full board at a specially called meeting. Additionally, I addressed the full orchestra briefly, and at their request, addressed the audience at a concert, which was remarkable.

The concert was conducted by their music director, David Gier, and it was an ambitious program: a Mozart concert aria, Elgar's Cello Concerto with their principal cellist, and Mahler's Fourth Symphony. This is typical programming for this orchestra. Last season they put a Pulitzer prize-winning composition on every concert.

Over the past ten years the orchestra has made enormous strides, artistically and administratively. They were major players in the community's decision to renovate an old high school into the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences. This unique center includes the city's major art museum, a science museum and planetarium, and a concert hall. (The Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia is similarly conceived, though not, I believe, with the art museum component.) At one point in the renovation there was a question as to whether to spend the extra dollars required to make the concert hall acoustically superior, and the orchestra board led the fight to do so; the hall sounds superb. I walked all around it during a rehearsal and found no poor locations. My seat in the middle of the main floor during the concert provided rich, balanced, blended sound of real impact and warmth.

Around that same time, the orchestra decided to invest in a core of four string players, guaranteeing them a decent annual salary and joint teaching employment at area colleges. That approach was amplified a few years later with a wind quintet, and then about two years ago with a second string quartet. So this is a $1.7 million orchestra with thirteen "core" players who, through playing and teaching (they are used as chamber groups in community and education programs) make a decent living, and have sufficient time to supplement that income. They get lots of applicants when one of these positions opens.

This has provided a strong artistic core, and the orchestra sounds extraordinary. Even given that I have been consistently surprised at the high level of playing of small orchestras in America, this was stunning. The principal cellist's performance of the Elgar was worthy of being heard in any city--he's a Russian émigré named Maxim Kozlov--and the orchestral playing in all three works was refined and highly professional. David Gier gave a splendid reading of the Mahler. The long slow movement unfolded as if in one breath, and you could absolutely feel the audience being drawn into the music. You could have heard a pin drop for the entire length of that slow movement. The orchestra also engaged a remarkable young lyric soprano, Hannah Celeste Nelson, who sang both the Mozart concert aria and the Mahler wonderfully. Watching David speak at a post-concert dinner and interact with the Volunteer League at their luncheon and the board at their meeting, it is clear that he is the complete music director package.

Tom Bennett has been executive director there for 11 years, and is loved by everyone I came in contact with--music director, board members, musicians--all credit him with much of the success of the organization. He is energetic and creative and goes beyond the call of duty many times. For instance, they applied for (and will be getting) one of Midori's Orchestra Residencies later this season. Tom is, I believe, the only manager of an orchestra with a Midori Residency who traveled the season before to another city to experience the residency, to learn what she does and how his orchestra can maximize it. He went to Great Falls, Montana last season to spend two days with Midori there.

The board, instead of resting on laurels, spent most of our meeting exploring how they might continue to grow and challenge themselves. It was wonderful to see an organization that seems to be operating on all cylinders, but in the end, it is the terrific concert that will long stay in the memory. In summary - a visit that was gratifying on every level.

February 29, 2008 2:16 PM | | Comments (2)



One correction. The Clay Center in Charleston WV does have a small art museum with some quality exhibits (some courtesy of Senator Rockefeller) as well as a science museum (complete with IMAX movie) & both a concert hall & small black box performance space.

In knowing David Gier since his work in Bridgeport, CT with his teacher, Gustav Meier, I knew then he would be a dedicated music director of an orchestra very soon. I was correct. With his artistic vision, he works with his administration and board in South Dakota to bring the best of the standard literature with new works to the South Dakota Symphony and community. I had the privilege to perform Lowell Liebermann's Third Piano Concerto with this orchestra, and found the orchestra, the concert hall first-class and the city of Sioux Falls to be an exciting and growing cosmopolitan region. Tom Bennett surely has made a mark for the orchestra and with the emergence of David Gier, all the puzzle pieces fit together to create a situation that can only sustain and get better for the patrons of this very fine orchestra.

Leave a comment


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by on the record published on February 29, 2008 2:16 PM.

Performance Style: Should We Believe the Critics? was the previous entry in this blog.

Excellence and Community Pride: Virginia's Williamsburg Symphonia is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.