Thursday, January 20, 2022

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The Sound

The Des Moines Symphony celebrates 75 years


The Des Moines Symphony enjoys an important milestone this season: its 75th anniversary.

“It means a lot to this organization and to the city,” said Sophia Ahmad, Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “Seventy-five years of continuous playing — coming out of the Great Depression, surviving a World War.”

The growth of the symphony, from its beginnings at Drake University to the professional organization it is today, has culminated in a 75th season that is being celebrated in a truly unique fashion. Combining elements from the symphony’s inaugural season with specially commissioned new music, Music Director/Conductor Joe Giunta has put together a season to remember.

“(This season) we’re pulling out all the stops,” said Ahmad.


It starts with the world premiere of a piece specially commissioned for the symphony. Written by Minnesota-based composer Steve Heitzeg, the piece is inspired by the artwork in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Heitzeg spent time in the park, becoming intimately acquainted with the pieces it houses, in order to capture the feel of each sculpture in music.

“He would do things like yell inside the sculpture to hear what it sounded like and base the instrumentation off of that,” explained Ahmad. “Or, for example, ‘White Ghost’ is in C-major because (the sculpture) is white, so he chose an all-white key.”

From there, the symphony season continues through the fall and winter with shows highlighted by some of the most famous and beloved pieces in classical music. Highlights such as “Scheherazade,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (made famous by Disney’s “Fantasia”) and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” ensure that season 75 does the tradition of the symphony proud.

But 75 years means more than just celebrating the past. For those involved, the anniversary is also about looking to the future.

“Our motto is ‘great music for a lifetime,’ so engaging new audiences is definitely on the forefront of our minds,” said Ahmad.

To that end, the symphony has created a number of programs to enable and encourage the young people who will both play in and support the symphony for the next 75 years.

“We have a very robust school of music — the Symphony Academy — that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year as well,” Ahmad explained. “(We see) the establishment of the Symphony Academy as a great feeder for the professional orchestra. There are three youth orchestras: one for kids in first through sixth grade, one for middle school kids and the last one for high-schoolers. We have camps and a ‘Group Lessons for Young Beginners’ program, which is where kids come in and are introduced to music in a keyboard-based environment. So they learn about rhythm, pitch and things like that.”

Additionally, the symphony makes it easy for young people to attend shows and be exposed to classical music.

“Every symphony academy student gets four tickets to hear the orchestra. If you come to any concert, you’ll see kids as young as 5 and 6 years old attending.

“Something that we introduced last year is the Collegiate Seven, which is a subscription program where any college student with a valid ID can hear all seven Master Works concerts for $40,” she continued. “The idea is to make sure that price isn’t a barrier for anyone who wants to come.”

From the symphony’s current season, to the young people viewed as the program’s future, the binding thread is the importance of a home-grown passion for classical music.

“This is how Des Moines plays Beethoven,” said Ahmad. “If Carrie Underwood (comes to town), that’s Carrie Underwood playing Des Moines. But this is Des Moines’ take on (classical music).” CV

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