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The Sound

A delicate balance


The Des Moines Symphony opens its season with “The Firebird” Sept. 27 and 28.

The Des Moines Symphony opens its season with “The Firebird” Sept. 27 and 28.

When Joe Giunta, music director and conductor of the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra, came to town in 1989, he knew he had his work cut out for him.

“I had meetings with business leaders where they’d tell me, ‘You picked a bad time to come to Des Moines,’ ” Giunta recalled. “Development had slowed down, the Civic Center was only about 10 years old, but it was too big for the orchestra it was housing; people weren’t engaged.”

What a difference a quarter-century can make.

Now the Des Moines symphony carries a nationally recognized reputation, regularly brings in world-renowned guest soloists, and is perhaps as healthy as it’s ever been in its 77-season history. And as the man who’s created each of the last 25 seasons’ worth of programs, Giunta is a big reason why.

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The development of a season’s worth of music starts about a year in advance. But for Giunta, there’s never really an off switch. Inspiration for future pieces or musical collaborations can come from a wide range of sources, but eventually it all comes down to a couple things.

“Primarily, when I program music, I try to keep three criteria in mind,” he explained. “One, music that will challenge and keep the orchestra growing and moving forward. Two, something that appeals to our audiences: things they should hear; things they want to hear. The third is just pieces that I love to conduct. If I can hit on all three of those aspects, it’s going to be a pretty good season.”

It’s a delicate balance. Finding that sweet spot consistently has not only helped Des Moines develop a reputation as one of the country’s strongest orchestras but has deeply ingrained the identity of the orchestra in the identity of the city.

Giunta uses both of those factors to his advantage when planning guest soloists for each upcoming season. In terms of a talent-to-opportunity ratio, it’s a buyer’s market in the U.S. today, which allows Giunta the luxury of not having to cater a program for a specific musician, just to draw in quality talent.

“For me, it’s always the piece (first),” he explained, talking about programming for a soloist. “I’ll think, ‘I want to do the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with…’ and then you find a list of people that play it, you listen to all of them, and you pick the one you like. The fact that there’s so much talent and so few opportunities today — there’s only 1,200 orchestras in this country, and only about 50 that are worth playing with — when you get an offer from the Des Moines Symphony to come and play, you’re going to take it very seriously.”

But for Giunta, the most important thing is the idea of community building. He sees the symphony as a living, breathing part of Des Moines and considers it to be his calling to foster a mutual admiration between orchestra and city.

“The overriding factor that I think about is keeping in touch with the community,” he said. “One of the big things that music teaches us is how to be good listeners. If you listen carefully, you can tell what makes a certain city unique. If you can somehow factor in how music can reflect what’s unique in a city, you’re probably going to hit a homerun.

“I would venture to say that you could talk to anyone on the street now, and even if they haven’t been to the Civic Center, they’ll know that Des Moines has a symphony,” he continued. “And if you ask the second question — is it any good — most of them will probably say yes.” CV

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