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America’s Most Exceptional Orchestra

Setting aside PostClassical Ensemble, the guerilla DC chamber orchestra I co-founded fourteen years ago, the most exceptional American orchestra I know is the South Dakota Symphony.

South Dakota’s “Copland and Mexico” festival, which concluded last Sunday afternoon, had many highlights. The performance of Silvestre Revueltas’s Sensemaya was lots better than the versions you can see on youtube conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The crucial difference was a slightly slower tempo, maximizing the weight and momentum of this amazing Mexican juggernaut, and the expert punctuation of certain rhythmic details at the very end. The musicians, for whom Revueltas was a discovery, responded with an infectious gratitude and excitement I do not typically encounter elsewhere.

Another new work for the orchestra as Aaron Copand’s prize-winning 1934 Communist workers’ song, “Into the Street May First!” It was to have been sung by a local chorus. When that fell through, the musicians took it over with interest and alacrity, singing from their seats. (A few scurrilously threatened to “take a knee.”)

Only a veteran of American symphonic affairs could fully appreciate the South Dakota situation. Many orchestras are fractured by tensions between “labor” and “management.” Wariness and indifference are pervasive. When the Pittsburgh Symphony went on strike in 2016, the picketing players were quick to differentiate themselves from the institution. That would be unthinkable in Sioux Falls.

The crucial ingredient is the 57-year-old music director: Delta David Gier. A year into his tenure, he moved to Sioux Falls. He and his wife have raised their kids there. What he has achieved would have been unthinkable had he not decided to become a local resident. That many American music directors live off site is tolerated far more than it should be. Art museums aren’t run by outsiders. Neither are theater companies.

Gier’s South Dakota programing is sophisticated. He emphasizes new and American works. Next season’s Mahler 8 will complete a comprehensive South Dakota Mahler cycle. He does without guest conductors and brand-name soloists. His 14-year tenure shows what can happen, over time, when a music director with vision is manning the home front.

The orchestra’s signature initiative is the Lakota Music Project, which Gier initiated in 2009. It connects SDSO to six Indian reservations. The relationship is symbiotic; it builds trust and community. To date, SDSO has produced more than 30 side-by-side musical events juxtaposing two cultures and their practitioners.

Two seasons ago, SDSO travelled to the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation to perform “Dvorak’s America,” exploring the influence of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha on Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I reported the outcome in this space. The mood on the bus was cheerful: business as usual. Many another orchestra would have resented that three-hour ride.

Last week’s “Copland and Mexico” was partly undertaken as an overture to Sioux Falls’ Hispanic community. The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a center of attention. So were two middle school classes that spent two months studying aspects of Mexican culture and history. The students’ “infographics” were displayed in the lobbies of the Washington Pavilion performing arts center. Six middle schoolers took part in pre-concert discussions with Gier. More than 500 newcomers to SDSO attended the festival concerts for free. The hall was packed with families.

The contract SDSO has negotiated with its players promotes a degree of “service flexibility” that could be controversial elsewhere. It maximizes opportunities to send musicians to schools, hospitals, health centers — and Indian reservations. The musicians feel well utilized. They interact as a family.

Both “Dvorak and America” and “Copland and Mexico” came to Sioux Falls via the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium that I am fortunate to direct. SDSO is the ideal recipient. Both prongs of Music Unwound – contextualized, cross-disciplinary programs, and linkage to institutions of education – are fully served.

“Copland and Mexico” tells the story of Aaron Copland’s 1930s Mexican epiphany. The examples of Diego Rivera and Carlos Chavez turned him into a populist – even, for a time, a political artist on the far left. We heard Copland’s El Salon Mexico. Mainly, however, the program introduced a lesser-known musical genius surpassing Copland: the mercurial, short-lived Revueltas. The main event was a film with live music: Redes (1935), in which Paul Strand’s hypnotic cinematography and Revueltas’s volatile score mark one of the highest and most dialectical achievements in marrying music with the moving image.

It was Gier’s inspiration to rupture the concert with a surprise. Not only did “Into the Streets, May First!” interrupt the scripted narration; it was instantly followed by a re-enactment of Copland’s testimony when in 1953 he was subpoenaed by Joe McCarthy and asked if he had ever been a Communist. Bob Wendland, playing Copland, stood in a solitary spotlight; McCarthy’s voice of god was declaimed from on high. As with so many American artists and intellectuals, Copland’s Depression-era politicization returned to haunt him during the Red Scare.

The SDSO concerts incorporated vigorous 45-minute post-concert discussions. On Saturday night, an audience member asked how the musicians felt about accompanying a film. Mario Chiarello, one of three members of the double bass section who teaches music in Sioux Falls public schools, had joined the post-concert audience – and volunteered a response. He explained that Redes was twice rehearsed without the film. With the addition of the film at the dress rehearsal, he said, a new dimension was attained. The musicians could not see the overhead screen, but an uncanny sensation swept the orchestra – a feeling of being empowered by “something bigger.”

That could stand as a metaphor for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra.

an ArtsJournal blog