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High note

Posted August 14, 2013 in Downtown

A lot has changed in Joseph Giunta’s 25 years as director and conductor of the Des Moines Symphony.

“It has been a terrific ride for me in so many ways,” Giunta says as he sits in his office at the Temple of Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines.

Giunta interviewed for his current job in 1988. Coming to Des Moines would be a challenge. He had been the music director for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Symphony. He admits he had used Des Moines as an example of what a symphony should not be: It was not connected to the community at the time, in his view, and it did not have a resident director.

“It didn’t have a kind of value that a community, the state capital, should have for its orchestra,” he recalls.

He asked 27 people he saw when he first interviewed in Des Moines whether the city had a symphony. Of those, two said “yes,” and only one had attended a performance.

“I knew when I took this job that Des Moines was under achieving,” he says.

Giunta decided to accept the challenge. He has helped build a symphony orchestra that draws some of the most talented musicians to audition for a position and to come to Des Moines as guest performers, has expanded the symphony’s outreach into the community, and has put together a program that has wide-range appeal and keeps up to date with the latest trends.

Symphony orchestra works to evolve, draw wider range of audiences
Today, Giunta believes most people in Des Moines would know about the symphony, and the majority of those would say they have attended a performance.

“You have to work really hard to build a symphony and expose people to great music,” he says, adding that he realizes classical music is not for everyone, but everyone can grow to appreciate it.

Giunta says the symphony started by expanding its outreach into a community and adding performances outside of the Des Moines Civic Center, its primary performance space. An early show at Living History Farms drew 5,000 people, which gave Giunta a hint that the city could respond to new efforts.

“I knew this was more than just conducting 16 or 18 concerts a year,” Giunta says of when he took on the job in Des Moines.

The orchestra began performing a Fourth of July show known as Yankee Doodle Pops 20 years ago. The free family-friendly performance for the community takes place on the west terrace of the Iowa State Capitol and has a different theme each year. It has drawn upward of 100,000 people.

Last year, the Des Moines Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary. Together, the Orchestra and the Symphony are the largest employer of professional artists in Iowa.

The roots of the Symphony Orchestra go back to 1937 when Drake University professor Frank Noyes conducted the first concert of the Des Moines Civic Orchestra, which was a joint effort between university and community musicians. The name was later changed to the Des Moines Symphony, and Noyes conducted the orchestra for 30 seasons.

Giunta’s 25 years in Des Moines
When he first came to Des Moines, no conductor would turn around and talk to the audience during a performance, as was common elsewhere across the country. Now, Giunta and conductors elsewhere tell the audience about new pieces, explain what the symphony has worked on and give them things to listen for during the performance.

Joseph Giunta, conductor and music director of the Des Moines Symphony, stands inside The Grand Hall in the Temple for the Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines. The room is used as an alternate rehearsal space for the symphony orchestra and as a rehearsal space for the three youth symphonies, as well as faculty recitals.

Joseph Giunta, conductor and music director of the Des Moines Symphony, stands inside The Grand Hall in the Temple for the Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines. The room is used as an alternate rehearsal space for the symphony orchestra and as a rehearsal space for the three youth symphonies, as well as faculty recitals.

Performances also now incorporate visual aspects to better tell stories. One example of this in Des Moines was “Symphony in Sculpture,” a work that Steve Heitzeg was commissioned to write for the symphony’s 75th anniversary. Heitzeg’s work portrays in music nine pieces from the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines. The piece was performed by the Des Moines Symphony and a video was created of the Sculpture Park to accompany the performance.

A new commission called “Symphony on a Stick” is in the works and is inspired by the Iowa State Fair. A visual component will accompany the musical performance.

The Symphony also will explore pop music and more family-directed performances to round out the variety it offers.

“These are great examples of how every symphony orchestra should connect with its community,” Giunta says, adding that it’s important for the Symphony to get outside of the concert hall and be creative with its programs besides performing the classics of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms.

For a full list of the Orchestra’s performances and guest musicians for the upcoming season, go to the Symphony’s website at

Giunta, whose first conducting job was for the Chicago Symphony and afterward traveled the world for jobs, says he feels as though he was able to make more of a difference in the advancement of the symphony in Des Moines than he would have been able to in a larger city. If he has an idea, it’s put into a plan and within two years it comes to fruition. He has the privilege of having absolute and complete freedom of artistic taste and the composers and pieces that are performed. He says he’s been able to do world premieres — 18 new works have been premiered under his direction the past 21 years.

But Giunta says there is more work to be done. While Des Moines’ Symphony is among the top three when compared to its peers for attendance at its performances, he wants to make that better. Each season, the Orchestra performs seven masterworks performances. The upcoming season begins in September. On a good Saturday evening performance, about 70 percent to 80 percent of the 2,600 seats at the Civic Center will be full. On a good Sunday, that number hovers at between 50 percent and 60 percent.

He says the symphony still attracts mostly middle age and older people, but this hasn’t changed since he graduated from high school in 1969. He and others continue to try to take what makes Des Moines and Iowa unique and build a program around that. However, Giunta admits enjoyment of classical music is something that most who enjoy it grow into.

Symphony broadens its focus on youth education
Through the Des Moines Symphony, more than 400 students each year receive lessons, direction and mentoring by more than 20 faculty members who are professional musicians and educators.

The Symphony Academy developed in 2003 as an offshoot of an idea by a board member who decided rather than criticize the decline of musical offerings in the public school system to create an education program to compliment and help students.

The result became a program that is designed to help enhance what is happening in the public school system. It also creates audience development by encouraging youth to appreciate classical music, and serves as a fundraising component by showcasing the achievement of youth in the musical arts to potential donors and philanthropists.

About 150 young musicians perform as part of the Des Moines Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Fundraising campaign raises almost $10 million, helps secure Symphony’s future

Giunta says the Symphony Orchestra has had some financial struggles in the past years. Much of that changed with the budget year that began July 1.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the business community and residents came forward to raise almost $10 million toward an endowment fund and for capital projects.

Some of the money will be used to construct a new acoustical shell for the Civic Center and to renovate the Symphony Academy’s rehearsal and performance spaces at the Temple. The Civic Center work is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2014-15 season.

Giunta says the money raised has secured the Symphony’s future for at least the next couple of decades if not longer

Symphony draws some of the best musicians to Des Moines
Giunta says he has always strived to have a quality orchestra in Des Moines, just as it was when he arrived.

His goal has always been to inspire musicians to go far beyond what they thought they could do. He says he’s always been pleased when he has walked off stage after a performance, even though his standards and the level of expectation have gotten higher through the years.

The Des Moines Symphony Orchestra and conductor Joseph Giunta.

The Des Moines Symphony Orchestra and conductor Joseph Giunta.

The Symphony has about 80 musicians who are selected through a blind audition process. Those who are auditioning are given excerpts and pieces to play, and a committee that consists of Giunta, musicians and the principal players from the section that is being auditioned for determine who is selected, says Sophia Ahmad, director of marketing and public relations for the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra and Academy.

Most of these musicians have a bachelor’s degree in music performance related to their instruments and some have advanced degrees or doctorates. Many also have been playing since childhood, and many would say their first musical experience started as a result of exposure when they were in school, says Ahmad, who also teaches piano at the Academy.

“Playing an instrument is one of those things that if you inspire to be really great at it and be a professional, you start really early,” she says. “Most have started between 5 and 9 years of age.”

Giunta says 25 years ago, a person had to travel to Europe or abroad if he or she wanted the best musical education. That has changed today. Some of the best schools in the United States are now producing the best musicians and aspiring musicians from all over the world come to this country to learn.

As a result, “a lot of that talent then seeks work in our country,” he says.

In Des Moines, vigorous national searches are conducted when there becomes an opening. Last year, 35 flutists auditioned for a position.

All of the musicians who play in the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra are professionals and paid for their work. Some have played in Des Moines for 50 years, while others will play until they win an audition elsewhere.

“We have a good history of longevity for people who stay in the orchestra,” Ahmad says.

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