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February 29, 2008

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.

Posted by hfogel at February 29, 2008 2:16 PM

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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.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at March 3, 2008 7:16 AM

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.

Posted by: Cindi Blume at March 8, 2008 2:05 PM