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How South Dakota Shows What Orchestras Are For

Beginning in the 1860s, the conductor Theodore Thomas – a symphonic Johnny Appleseed – began touring the entire United States with his Thomas Orchestra. His credo was: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” And in cities large and small, it did.

Today, the American orchestra is no longer the civic bulwark it once was. There are exceptions. I would say that the Chicago Symphony is one. That’s partly because Thomas himself was the founding music director, in 1891; and because he was succeeded by his assistant, Frederick Stock, through 1942. That is: For half a century, the Chicago Symphony had only two primary conductors, both German-born. It also happens to be the only American orchestra whose founding music director was a major conductor. And so it retains a central place in Chicago’s identity. It also retains an anchoring Germanic identity, Riccardo Muti notwithstanding.

But the American orchestra that most shows the culture of the community can only be the South Dakota Symphony. As I have previously written in this space, it is our most exceptional orchestra. I am just back from a week in South Dakota, and my impressions have only deepened.

The occasion was a third Music Unwound festival, funded by the NEH. Previously, we undertook “Dvorak and America” (bringing the New World Symphony to an Indian reservation) and “Copland and Mexico” (for which the musicians lustily sang Copland’s Communist workers’ song “Into the Streets May First!” – even though several had scurrilously threatened to  “take a knee”). This season’s Music Unwound immersion experience was “American Roots.” It comprised two subscription concerts, three young people’s concerts (filmed by South Dakota public TV), ancillary concerts and a master class at two universities, and the participation of two middle school Social Studies classes (with sixty seventh graders reading my young readers book Dvorak and America). The total attendance was something like 6,000, and covered a geographic radius of 150 miles.

The SDSO subscription audience is by far the most diversified in age I have ever encountered at a professional symphonic concert (and I have been around). And yet the programing is bold. The main work on “American Roots” was Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2. The current season also includes Mahler’s Eighth (completing a Mahler symphony cycle), Sibelius’s Seventh, concertos by Nielsen and Lalo, and new music by Jeffrey Paul (the orchestra’s superb principal oboe) and Erik Larsson.

Alongside all that, the orchestra pursues its signature Lakota Music Project, producing side-by-side concerts at Indian reservations that juxtapose classical music with Native American works.

But the most remarkable aspect of the South Dakota Symphony, for any observer as venerable as myself, is the attitude of the musicians. They are engaged. They are mission-driven. As I had occasion to tell them at an Ives rehearsal: “This orchestra is so friendly it’s disorienting.”

Many factors are in play. Sioux Falls is full of orchestras. The middle school I visited has three of them. The SDSO itself maintains three youth orchestras (I heard a rousing youth-orchestra rendition of the Mussorgsky/Rimsky Night on Bald Mountain).  With 250,000 people, the metropolitan area is small enough to facilitate community. A recent influx of immigrants from North Africa and Southeast Asia seems assimilated with forethought and good will. But the singular vision of the SDSO music director, Delta David Gier, is paramount. He moved to Sioux Falls and raised a family there. He concocted the Lakota Music Project. He has initiated programing featuring Ghanaian, Persian, and Chinese instrumentalists and composers. He has elevated the standard of performance to a startling height of conviction and finesse. He is a thinker and a leader.

The point of “American Roots” (which like all Music Unwound programs migrates around the US, adapted to local needs and desires) is to introduce audiences to Charles Ives. He is arguably the most important American composer of classical music. He is little performed. His eccentricities are considered forbidding. He was long viewed with suspicion by lesser Americans like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. (I do not know of a subsequent American symphony as cannily assembled as are the five movements of the Ives 2, completed around 1909; such works as the Third Symphonies of Copland and Roy Harris seem lopsided and uneven by comparison.)

And yet Ives is easy to humanize, because he was a great man. One Music Unwound presentation, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” intermingles Ives songs (peerlessly – and I mean peerlessly – sung by William Sharp) with letters. One of those, from his daughter Edith, began:

“Dear Daddy,

“You are so very modest and sweet Daddy, that I don’t think you realize the full import of the words people use about you, ‘a great man.’

“Daddy, I have had a chance to see so many men lately – fine fellows, and no doubt the cream of our generation. But I have never in all my life come across one who could measure up to the fine standard of life and living that you believe in, and that I have always seen you put into action no matter how many counts were against you. You have fire and imagination that is truly a divine spark, but to me the great thing is that never once have you tried to turn your gift to your own ends. Instead you have continually given to humanity right from your heart, asking nothing in return; — and all too often getting nothing. The thing that makes me happiest about your recognition today is to see the bread you have so generously cast upon most ungrateful waters, finally beginning to return to you. All that great love is flowing back to you at last. Don’t refuse it because it comes so late, Daddy.”

Once contextualized, the often cantankerous Second Symphony is infectious.  By “contextualized,” I mean that the Music Unwound program precedes the symphony with a half dozen tunes that Ives quotes, beginning with “Camptown Races” (sung by Bill Sharp with banjo accompaniment). We demonstrate how Ives uses another Stephen Foster tune, “Old Black Joe,” as the second subject of his Civil War finale, and thereby (as he once explained in a futile attempt to interest the New York Philharmonic) expresses sympathy for the slave.

All that comprised the second half of the SDSO subscription program. The first half began with a minstrel song played by banjo and spoons (SDSO principal percussionist John Pennington proved an electrifying spoon virtuoso). Gier then revealed that the tune just heard was composed by . . . Antonin Dvorak. It’s the A major second theme in the finale of his American Suite, transforming an A minor Indian dance. This 1894 Dvorak composition, still scandalously little-known, comprises a stack of American postcards. The Music Unwound performance of Dvorak’s suite incorporates a visual presentation created by my longtime colleague Peter Bogdanoff; adapted for Sioux Falls, it features the South Dakota artists Oscar Howe and Harvey Dunn depicting the Dakota flatland in juxtaposition with Dvorak’s evocation of the Iowa prairie he knew as of 1894. The result looked like this:

Another South Dakota ingredient was the participating pianist: Paul Sanchez, a Sioux Falls native. Sanchez’s account of Rhapsody in Blue was original – the most bewitchingly lyric I have ever encountered. This beloved work is what sold the concert, but was no sell-out: a straight line runs from the American Dvorak to Gershwin, and we clinched it with Dvorak’s G-flat Humoresque – the bluesy music that inspired Gershwin to become a composer.

The scripted, multi-media program I have just partly described ran 70 minutes on the first half and another 65 on part two. Gier likes long programs. Many in the audience stayed put to talk. The topic, framed by my script, was “What is America?” Inescapably, our discussion fixed on issues of race.

Next October, the SDSO Lakota Music Project travels to DC for a festival – tentatively titled “Native American: From Spillville to Pine Ridge” – that my PostClassical Ensemble will produce at the Washington National Cathedral. The National Museum of the American Indian will also take part. The South Dakota contingent will include Gier, nine SDSO members, two distinguished Native American musicians, and an ethnomusicologist. One of the participating players will be the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Chris Hill – a 32-year SDSO veteran. Over lunch, I asked Chris if he were aware of the DC project. He answered that, as a member of the SDSO board, he had insisted on casting the first vote in favor.

I was with Bill Sharp (whose impressions of the SDSO echo my own, as do those of David Hyslop, who managed the St. Louis Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra and is currently the SDSO interim CEO). Bill remarked to Chris that the orchestra’s Sommervold Hall is one of the most acoustically impressive in which he has had occasion to perform. (Bill has performed in many halls.) Chris said: “I helped to design it.” Sommervold may in fact be the best orchestral auditorium to be found among the countless multi-purpose halls constructed around the turn of the twentieth century. The idea was to accommodate the local orchestra and lucrative itinerant musicals in one and the same space. It failed elsewhere because the resulting space was too big; the builders were intent on maximizing box office revenue. Sommervold has only 1,800 seats; it prioritizes the South Dakota Symphony.

Chris added that he conducts the Sioux Falls Municipal Band, now celebrating its centenary. There are 24 bandshell concerts every summer. Any Ives? we asked. Of course, he answered.

*. *. *

To sample the South Dakota Symphony’s Music Unwound “Copland and Mexico” production, click here.

Sioux Falls has a public radio station that broadcasts extensive arts interviews. To hear Joe Horowitz in conversation with SDSO Music Director Delta David Gier, click here.


  1. Hi Joe,

    Regarding how mission-driven orchestra musicians can or can’t be, in my experience the closer one’s orchestra is near the top of the food-chain, the more over-worked and closed-off are the musicians to new missions. Innovation is more likely to take place in medium orchestras and from-scratch ensembles like PCE and CutTime®. I’m just coming to learn of your work and believe we share a similar passion for “Americanizing” American classical music as ASOL proposed back in 1993. There is SO much we can do to establish relevance, place, connection and validation for a wider public. I will follow your work very closely.

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