Infinite choice of music in a few clicks sounds like a dream. In reality it can dull your desire and lead to what the social psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice,” a kind of paralysis in decision-making that causes many of us to disengage altogether. Culture is like relationships; you get more out of them when you’re asked to invest something.
So I can’t discount the context in which I attended a performance by the South Dakota Symphony in Sioux Falls a couple of weeks ago. My friend and colleague Joe Horowitz has for several years been touting the orchestra and its music director Delta David Geier as an example of what American orchestras should aspire to be. And last year, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross made the trek to Sioux Falls to attend a concert and came away proclaiming it one of his top ten musical experiences of 2022.
Then there was the physical context. I decided to drive from my home in Seattle to Sioux Falls, about 1,500 miles away. I love road trips, and the drive though Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota is beautiful. A few days before I was to leave in late October, the temperature in Sioux Falls was 75 degrees; alas, the day I started out, the first major winter storm of the season rolled in across the Northwest, and a snowstorm outside Bozeman, MT produced whiteout conditions on Interstate 90, slowing travel to a crawl on a road built for 80+mph. By the time I arrived in Sioux Falls, the temperature was in the teens.
So maybe the analog opposite of a click away, and with it, some investment in expectations.
The other reason for my interest in this particular concert was a rare performance of the Lou Harrison Piano Concerto. I first heard it as a student in New York in the 1980s in a performance by Marin Alsop’s Concordia orchestra with Ursula Oppens as soloist. It was written in 1983 for Keith Jarrett and revised in 1985, and I’ve only ever heard it performed live twice. Only a couple of recordings have ever been produced, including one with Jarrett and a Japanese orchestra, that oddly, doesn’t really capture the elastic qualities of the music.
That the piece hasn’t found a wider following is a shame. Horowitz considers it the best American piano concerto, and I might agree. From its grand bombastic opening and angular melodies, reflective pools and undulating rhythms, it is both original and evocatively American. While performances of Harrison’s music on the West Coast are demi-semi-common – he was born in Portland Oregon and spent most of his career working on the West Coast – in the rest of the country he is less well known.
That may be in part because he didn’t work in the mainstream of 20th Century music, with its emphasis on breaking down and reassembling the elements of music. He was deeply influenced by Indonesian gamelan, medieval, and Renaissance music, his musical language often built on Javanese scales, modal melodies, and intricate rhythms. He was a pioneer in alternate tunings and microtones and created a distinctive, culturally hybrid musical language that nonetheless is heavily American-inflected.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The South Dakota Symphony has a budget of just over $2.3 million, teeny tiny for an orchestra that must put dozens of musicians onstage. It performs only about a dozen programs a year, and its musicians, outside a core group of eight principals, are pickup contract players. In an art form where ensemble familiarity and enduring teamwork are often good predictors of performance, the lack of week-in/week-out experience is usually telling.
On the other hand, orchestras made up of musicians that have to extend themselves in the absence of routine can be thrilling. The South Dakota players are good musicians, but what is extraordinary about them is the way they listen to one another, build on one another’s phrases and the willingness of Gier to give them room to do it. Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli was the soloist, a specialist in American music. He tore into the propulsive second movement, using percussion as counterpoint he could play with like a cat with a toy. The longer, angular open-toned melodies he gave room to breathe – they evoke for me the great Western expanses and mountains – and made the gamelan-inflected oscillations of the score supple rather than strict. In every way, this was an idiomatic performance that let it find its own language.
The program opened with Princess of the Pagodas from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and after the concerto, in the second half, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. And here it is important to return to my opening point about context. Ravel and Rimsky, in both these pieces, were inspired by Eastern music, which sounded exotic to them. Both pieces are audience favorites for their evocative and colorful melodies and washes of orchestral color. They served as bookends to Harrison’s fusion of Eastern and Western in the concerto, synthesized and realized in an entirely different way. Where the Impressionistic Ravel and Rimsky scores are touristic visitors to foreign shores, Harrison melds East and West into a language that seems neither native to both, but not foreign either.
To make the connections and context clear, the program began with a stage conversation between Gier and Horowitz and a short video introducing Harrison. And it wasn’t just informational – context isn’t just about more information, it’s about finding ways to locate what you’re hearing in a set of experiences that help give them meaning. So an introduction to gamelan and how it can sound and is traditionally used.
As in the Harrison, the performance of Scheherazade was filled with air. Where many conductors like to dance across the sparkle and smash, Gier took his time, let players find their own voices and waited until one long fully-spun climax at the very end. This orchestra doesn’t sound like others. Players come from around the Midwest, as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago, and Gier says they keep returning because they like the camaraderie and the freedom they have there.
That players seem to listen differently he attributes in part to their work with musicians from the Lakota Indian nation in the western part of the state. The Lakota Music Project was started in 2005, and features collaborations between South Dakota Symphony musicians and Lakota musicians, “each performing music of their heritages as well as unique repertoire commissioned for the musicians to play together.” The encounters have taught Symphony musicians to listen to one another differently, and this has been infused into the larger group.
As for the orchestra’s artistic identity – American music is at its center, and that’s by design. The audience gets a lot of it, including significant commissions by composers such as John Luther Adams. The Harrison on this concert was greeted with a standing ovation, whereupon Arciuli and the orchestra reprised the second movement to further cheers. Context is everything.