Home Musical score How the South Dakota Symphony Became One of America’s Boldest Orchestras

How the South Dakota Symphony Became One of America’s Boldest Orchestras

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The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, the musical pride of Sioux Falls, has an annual budget of $2.3 million, which is microscopic by the standards of major American orchestras. The Chicago Symphony spends more than that each year on Riccardo Muti’s salary. Nevertheless, the South Dakota Symphony is bolder and savvier in its programming than all but a handful of American ensembles. Delta David Gier, music director of the SDSO, recently won the Ditson Conductor’s Award, which Columbia University gives to notable advocates of American composers. The quote called Gier “the model of the engaged leader.” His group is the model of a committed orchestra.

The SDSO celebrated its centenary this season, in an ambitious way. The list of composers included not only Beethoven, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, but also Stephen Yarbrough, David M. Gordon, Jessie Montgomery, Anna Clyne, George Walker, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Malek Jandali. A concert was dedicated to Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion; another featured works by student composers from the Lakota and Dakota tribes. (The orchestra has a series called the Lakota Music Project.) The season concluded with a program consisting of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”; “The Great Gate of kyiv”, extract from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky; and “An Atlas of Deep Time,” a sprawling new score by John Luther Adams. I flew in for the occasion, having long admired the group from afar.

The program would have tested any top orchestra. The SDSO, which deploys nine full-time musicians and a wide range of freelancers, has struggled in places. Still, the performances were never less than commendable, and the game’s focused energy outweighed any concern for precision. Also, I have attended very few concerts where a classical music organization seemed so integrated into its community. During some announcements from the stage, Jennifer Teisinger, the orchestra’s general manager, asked former members of the ensemble to stand. In a crowd of over a thousand people, dozens stood up. Nothing like this could have happened in New York, Los Angeles, London or Berlin.

The SDSO’s founder was conductor, violinist and composer Marie Toohey, who started it when she was still in her twenties, after a period of study in Germany. One of the few female conductors to ever play such a role, Toohey died tragically young, at the age of thirty-two. At first, the orchestra consisted of students from Augustana University, Sioux Falls; later it was known as the Augustana Town & Gown Symphony, then as the Sioux Falls Symphony, before choosing its current name in 1977. In 1999, it took up residence at the Washington Pavilion, an arts venue and a downtown science center.

Sixty-two-year-old Gier arrived in 2004. He had gained attention early on at the New York Philharmonic, serving as assistant conductor and conducting concerts for young people. When he was trying out for the SDSO job, he gave an interview to Sioux Falls Chief of Argus in which he expresses his enthusiasm for living composers. The title was “orchestras need contemporary music, says conductor.” Gier thought he had squandered his chances, but he was hired anyway. In its first season, each concert featured an American composer who had won the Pulitzer Prize. As Gier told me, he felt that skeptical listeners might feel reassured by the Pulitzer’s imprimatur. “The idea was ‘You don’t have to take my word for it,” Gier said.

There was resistance all the same. When John Corigliano’s uncontroversial Second Symphony appeared on a program, a donor threatened to withdraw his money. Gier, unsure of what to do next, called Chad Smith, who was then the artistic administrator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is now that orchestra’s general manager. The LA Phil had faced a similar setback during its decades-long road to renovating its repertoire, particularly in the early years of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure. Smith told Gier he should not back down from his beliefs; rather, he should ensure that the staff and the orchestra spoke the same persuasive language. Gier told me: “You have to know how to respond to complaints. Because people will complain. They will complain about your Berlioz! It is a philosophy of reckless stubbornness, and over time it tends to disarm opposition. In Sioux Falls, audiences began to fall in love with some of the new stuff and learned to tolerate the rest.

Adams first visited Sioux Falls in 2016, when the orchestra performed his symphonic work “Become Ocean,” which had won the Pulitzer two years earlier. Although Adams is now based in New Mexico, he lived for decades in Alaska and played percussion in the Fairbanks Symphony. In a public conversation with Gier, Adams said the spirit of the SDSO won him over and also reminded him of his own past: “I’m used to bold orchestras outside of cultural capitals who don’t know what they are . not supposed to be able to do.

“An Atlas of Deep Time” is the latest in a series of large-scale pieces in which Adams evokes elemental landscapes; in addition to “Become Ocean”, these include “In the White Silence”, “Become Desert”, and “Ten Thousand Birds”. The new work evokes the vastness of geological time – “deep time”, as John McPhee dubbed it in his book “Basin and Range”, which grew out of articles that appeared in this magazine in 1980. “Atlas” lasts approximately forty five years. minutes; if the score were mapped against the lifespan of the Earth, each minute would equal one hundred million years. The formal structure is modeled on the topography of the basins and mountain ranges of western North America, with its incessant alternation of mountain uplifts and desert plains. Five orchestral aggregations unfold in sequence, gathering strength and then calming down.

The ensemble is divided into six spatially distinct choirs. At the Washington Pavilion, strings and percussion were placed together on stage; four groups of bronzes and winds occupied balconies on the right and on the left; trumpets and trombones thundered in the back. An ever-changing pattern of overlapping tempos conveys the complexity of geological stratification. Harmony, likewise, is governed by shifting stacks of intervals. In the middle of each “scale” section, the chords take on a snowy tonal grandeur. The “pools” are interludes of quivering rest, with bursts of drums running through shimmering string textures.

Many of these elements are familiar from “Become Ocean”, which has mesmerized audiences around the world. “Atlas” is a steeper, denser, more unsettling score, too laden with seismic tension to send listeners into a trance-like state. It may take time to find the best way to present it. At the dress rehearsal, I sat in the orchestra; at the show, I was in the mezzanine. Neither perspective was ideal. Below, the balcony choirs seemed a little distant. Above, the sound was more immersive, though a phalanx of eight French horns obliterated everything else. Both times, darkness prevailed in the climaxes. A recording was made in the room the following day; this will undoubtedly bring clarity.

Still, the premiere looked like a great occasion. As often with Adams, I had the feeling of entering a physically palpable space, in which the mind can wander. Gier imagined the rugged expanse of the Black Hills in western South Dakota. My thoughts went out to Willa Cather, who grew up in Nebraska, about two hundred and fifty miles to the southwest. In a famous passage from “Mon Antonía”, Cather gazed at the endless vistas of the plains and wrote of the joy of being “dissolved in something complete and great”. The sonic vastness of “An Atlas of Deep Time” offered the same eerie pleasure. ♦