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Lunch With...

Joe Giunta at Fresko

7/5/2023

Joe Giunta is maestro of the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra (DMSO). He has had opportunities to conduct top orchestras all over Europe, South America and the U.S., and he has remained loyal to Des Moines Symphony since 1989. We asked him to lunch recently, and he chose Fresko. 

“They serve brunch all afternoon and, after COVID, I really like places that buzz with business. Fresko’s raspberry mascarpone is a favorite dish.” 

So, over raspberry mascarpone and the best pancakes I remember, we talked about music, strange destiny and the upcoming DMSO season. 

Giunta grew up in New Jersey. Comedian Willie Fratto Farrell says that, when he performs in Atlantic City, he doesn’t even bother telling the Italians who flock to his shows that he is from Iowa. They tell him “There ain’t no Italians in Iowa.” So how did this Jersey Italian find his way to Iowa?

“A great teacher changed my life. I grew up in rural Jersey, but only 20 minutes from Philadelphia in the era when (Philadelphia Symphony conductor) Eugene Ormandy was recording more classical music than anyone ever before. Mine was a community so small we only had six years of school before being transferred to a larger school district. My first six years, we all got to school on two busses. By high school, it took 176 busses. As the school districts grew larger, so did the quality of music education. 

“My music teacher in high school was a substitute for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he would give some of us tickets. He was our Mick Jagger. I am only in music because of him, and my story is the story of 95% of all the musicians I know.”

How has classical music in America changed since his childhood? 

“In the 18th and half way through the 19th century, European immigrants dominated audiences, and people waited years to buy season tickets. Today, you or I could walk up to the box office for Yo Yo Ma at the New York Philharmonic and buy a ticket without scalper involvement.”

What is different about conducting around the world? 

“In Argentina and Brazil, musicians are not as serious about practice. That drives me crazy; I think that practice makes music better. But those orchestras show up on game day, and you would never know they slacked off in practice.” 

The great showman of baseball, Bill Veeck, played a role in Giunta’s story. 

“I was a student at Northwestern studying conducting. The Chicago Symphony was the place to be. Veeck wanted a young conductor to direct the organ player in a rendition of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ So I did it, in full tails, and there was a five-second delay between the organ and being able to hear the crowd sing along. I think I lost 10 pounds in a minute and a half worrying if that was working. That was my first big conducting event.” 

When Giunta was conducting the Waterloo Symphony in 1974, he got to be a guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony. That was a lightning rod for his career. 

“Because of that, I got an agent in New York and London and Rome. That was my PhD. I met the greatest conductors and musicians of the 20th century. That agent told me about the job opening here in Des Moines. I was one of eight people who auditioned. I went first, having been told that the best odds are always with the guy who goes last.

“So, I did Mahler just to see the reaction, plus a couple other choices. I saw great potential in the musicians, the DMSO organization and community support. A year and a half later, I had forgotten about the job, but I was in Des Moines for an Arts Council meeting and George Carpenter offered me. I inherited a ready-to-grow orchestra and set out to make that growth happen. And to break down barriers between haute art and popular sentiments.” 

You have an ABBA impersonation group coming to Pops. How do you impersonate ABBA? Those ladies had unique harmony.

“I was aware of that. We went to Sweden; this group is the best in the world.” 

The coming season has some fabulous guest stars? 

“We start with Anne Akiko Meyer playing a ‘Discover Fandango’ concert featuring her rendition of Arturo Marquez’s ‘Fandango.’ That will be Sept. 23-24. Other dance music from Iberia will be included.”

Then in October, you have Sandbox Percussion? 

“Yes, with performance of Viet Coung’s ‘Re(new)al.’ That show concludes with Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade.’ ” 

That will be a debut in Des Moines for Sandbox Percussion, but you are bringing back an audience favorite in November? 

“Two audience favorites, actually. Joyce Yang will feature with Grieg’s beloved ‘Piano Concerto.’ Plus, works by Glinka and Florence Price. Shostakovich’s tragicomic ‘Symphony No. 9,’ a cynical critique of the political and artistic oppression experienced in Stalinist Soviet Russia, closes that concert.”

The classical season revs up again in February. 

“Conductor Keith Lockhart, known for his tenure with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops, leads the Orchestra in Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ and Barber’s gorgeous ‘Violin Concerto,’ performed by prodigy Amaryn Olmeda. (Feb. 3 and Feb. 4).”

March will bring Gershwin back to town with a great pianist? 

“Michelle Cann makes her Des Moines debut performing ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ framed by Carlos Simon’s gospel-inspired ‘Amen!’ and César Franck’s ‘Symphony in D Minor.’ ”

Then in April (13-14), I think you expect a blockbuster from Minneapolis with an all dance show? 

“It will be ballet meets break-dance. BRKFST performs their original choreography to Beethoven’s ‘Grosse Fuge.’ Selections from Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Prokofiev ballets round out that performance.”

The season finale in May will perform a much-loved Beethoven show that was canceled by COVID on the composer’s 200th birthday. 

“Our season finale begins with Suppe’s exciting Pique Dame, or ‘Queen of Spades’ overture. Valerie Coleman’s ‘UMOJA, Anthem of Unity,’ explores the meaning of human endeavor. Finally, Beethoven’s immortal Ninth Symphony in which 150 voices become one in ‘Ode to Joy.’ ” ♦

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