S.D. Symphony conductor reaching career crescendo
The 63-year-old Gier sat in a conference room at the Washington Pavilion in downtown Sioux Falls on a recent afternoon and pondered the unmistakable momentum of the state’s century-old orchestra.
SIOUX FALLS — Delta David Gier has a lot to look forward to.
He’s approaching 20 years as conductor and music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, which has overcome financial challenges and a global pandemic to position itself as a cultural force on the Great Plains, drawing national acclaim for its community engagement and musical repertoire.
The 63-year-old Gier, his trademark tousled hair showing touches of gray, sat in a conference room at the Washington Pavilion in downtown Sioux Falls on a recent afternoon and pondered the unmistakable momentum of the state’s century-old orchestra, which concludes the 2022-23 season on Saturday, April 29, with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
First there was the May 2022 article by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who dubbed Gier’s 75-member ensemble – just 13 of them full-time – “one of America’s boldest orchestras” after attending a world premiere performance of the latest score from composer John Luther Adams at the Pavilion’s 1,800-seat Mary W. Sommervold Hall.
That high-level praise, plus the ongoing Lakota Music Project, Gier’s ambitious effort to meld orchestral styles with traditional Native songs and ceremonies, drew the attention of music-loving philanthropist and South Dakota native Dean Buntrock and wife Rosemarie.
Their $2 million donation became the largest in the organization’s history and will fund a performance in 2025 of a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on the Norwegian immigrant novel “Giants in the Earth,” which marks its 50th anniversary that same year.
The Lakota Music Project has evolved into Bridging Cultures, an initiative aided by the Bush Prize for Community Innovation awarded to the South Dakota Symphony in 2016. The program will explore musical partnerships with immigrant and refugee communities and highlight artists such as South Asian composer Reena Esmail and Iranian composer Niloufar Iravani, who will perform as part of this year’s season finale on April 29.
It's an exciting time, in other words, for a former New York Philharmonic assistant conductor who arrived in Sioux Falls in 2004 with the stated goal of finding a sense of place beyond standard-fare composers and prominent patrons and then actually embark on that search, shattering a few stereotypes along the way.
“One of the things I brought to the South Dakota Symphony was a conviction that an orchestra should serve its unique community uniquely,” said Gier.
“So what does South Dakota need in an orchestra? The first thing is that it needs great music, and we need to play great music as well as we possibly can, and we do that. But beyond that, what do you do with education and community engagement? And who are you engaging?”
Scott Lawrence, a longtime symphony board member who served as chairman from 2013 to 2022, remembers hearing that message two decades ago and being taken aback, just as audiences recoiled at times when hearing contemporary American composers championed by Gier rather than the easier listening of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
“Never before had I heard someone talk about, ‘What we do with our communities?’” said Lawrence. “The symphony never talked about that kind of stuff. It was just music on the stage. That was what we did. But David had a vision and a passion for more than that, and it wasn’t just lip service. He lives it every day.”
The results are encouraging.
The nonprofit has an annual budget of $2.4 million. It reported net assets of $3.4 million in fiscal year 2022, up from $2.7 million the previous year.
That’s quite a turnaround from just over a decade ago when the Great Recession nearly forced it into extinction. Everyone, including Gier, took a pay cut at the time, only to encounter new challenges when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Subscriptions are down 12% from the last pre-pandemic season, but the $2 million gift includes funds to boost marketing and outreach.
Besides leading the 75-member orchestra, Gier wants to grow a crop of future musicians. The symphony’s educational programming includes a youth orchestra of 137 musicians comprising five student ensembles that has sent alumni to “top-shelf conservatories around the country,” according to Gier.
He frowned in contemplation when asked about his future and that of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. His wife, Angela, acknowledged that a dream job with a big-city orchestra could still emerge, but it’s not uncommon for conductors to have two or three orchestras. And Gier is mindful of the moment in Sioux Falls, a place not previously given to national acclaim in matters of the arts.
“Music directors generally come in with a bag of tricks and need to move on within 10 years or so,” said Gier, who was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2020.
“But there are exceptions to that rule, and I like to think of myself in that category, where the ensemble and the conductor grow together. I think that’s certainly been the case. I’m a much better conductor now than I was 20 years ago, and the orchestra is much better. Nobody wants it to end now, and nobody foresees that.”
Jennifer Teisinger, the symphony’s executive director, arrived in February 2019 and is still sorting through the benefits of the New Yorker article and $2 million donation. She’s more to the point when speaking of Gier’s future.
“We have not talked about him leaving,” Teisinger said. “We have only talked about him staying.”
New York writer heartened by South Dakota performance
The symphony’s 100th anniversary in 2022 couldn’t have come at a better time, with special celebrations planned for the April season finale and a world premiere performance of “An Atlas of Deep Time” by Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams.
Adams, one of the American composers that Gier had championed through the years, was in attendance in 2016 when the symphony performed one of his earlier nature-based works, “Become Ocean.” He was impressed with the presentation and began discussions with Gier about writing an original score to coincide with the orchestra’s 100th anniversary gala.
As that plan became reality, Adams invited Ross, the influential New Yorker critic, to come to Sioux Falls in April 2022 to review his new piece, a sort of vindication of Gier’s devotion to highlighting contemporary works from the podium at the Pavilion, despite the occasional fuss.
“David’s consistency of developing relationships with American composers is behind the relationship he has with John Luther Adams, which resulted in the world premiere and Alex Ross coming to hear the music,” said Teisinger. “Alex Ross was not coming to hear the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Alex Ross was coming to hear the premiere of John Luther Adams’ piece.”
Once seated and presented with not just the Adams score but an anniversary celebration of the symphony, The New Yorker critic was heartened by what he saw. His review noted that the orchestra featured a “large array of freelancers” and “struggled in spots.” But he focused on efforts to honor longtime symphony musicians and staffers, including retiring librarian Pat Masek, whose service to the orchestra dated back 60 years.
“I’ve experienced very few concerts at which a classical-music organization seemed so integral to its community,” wrote Ross, who highlighted a moment when Teisinger took the stage and asked former members of the ensemble to stand and be recognized.
“In a crowd of more than a thousand people, dozens rose their feet,” Ross wrote. “Nothing of the sort could have happened in New York, Los Angeles, London or Berlin.”
South Dakota native responded to national story with record gift
One of those intrigued by the New Yorker article was Dean Buntrock, the northeast South Dakota native and founder of Waste Management, which reported nearly $20 billion in revenue in 2022. Buntrock and his wife had donated generously to St. Olaf College, his alma mater, the Lutheran Church in America and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
He called Augustana University president Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, with whom he had a family connection, and she directed him to Teisinger and Gier. They learned he was interested in exploring ways to help them enhance programming beyond their established budget, creating more opportunities like scenes depicted in The New Yorker piece.
“He came here twice,” Gier said of Buntrock, gesturing to the Pavilion’s conference room. “The first time with his wife, and the second time with his lawyer and accountant.”
The discussions resulted in a $2 million gift over four years, with directed funding tied to marketing, fundraising and statewide outreach. Part of that means the Lakota Music Project, which achieved national stature with a 2019 concert at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, will have the resources necessary for original compositions, academies and touring.
Symphony to perform opera based on Norwegian immigrants
The project has evolved into Bridging Cultures, an initiative aided by the Bush Prize for Community Innovation awarded to the South Dakota Symphony in 2016. The program will explore musical partnerships with immigrant and refugee communities and highlight artists such as South Asian composer Reena Esmail and Iranian composer Niloufar Iravani, who will perform as part of this year’s season finale on April 29.
What really caught Buntrock’s attention as a Norwegian descendant, though, was Gier’s effort to revive the 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Giants in the Earth” opera by Douglas Moore, based on Ole Rolvaag’s 1925 novel depicting the struggles and sacrifice of Norwegian settlers in the Dakota Territory.
The opera premiered in 1951 at Columbia University but has been performed rarely since, and it has never been recorded. Gier met with Charles Berhdahl, a symphony patron and descendant of Rolvaag, to better understand the themes behind the story and its author, whose writing cabin can still be found on the Augustana campus.
Buntrock’s gift will make possible a 2025 multimedia symphony performance of the opera, which Gier describes musically as “mid-20th century Americana,” in the state where the story is based, on the 100th anniversary of the “Giants of the Earth” novel.
It’s a full circle moment for the conductor, who was handed a copy of the book by symphony patron and Center for Western Studies founder Art Husboe at that introductory dinner 20 years ago in Sioux Falls, where he first started searching for a sense of place.
“I think ‘Giants in the Earth’ fits with our Bridging Cultures theme,” said Gier.
“It’s people who came here 150 years ago looking for a new life out of desperation because they couldn’t feed their families at home. Now we have all these refugees coming from all over the world, and it’s really the same story, like the Karen people up in Huron working at a turkey plant. I kind of doubt the Norwegians wanted to leave home. But they were desperate, they had to leave, and how is that much different from Somali refugees fleeing war in their home country and ending up in Sioux Falls, of all places? How do you build a new life?”
Finding meaning in the message
In March 2022, David and Angela traveled to London to celebrate the wedding of their daughter, Anna, now 26 years old and pondering her career path after two degrees at Oxford University. Also in their orbit is son Gabriel, 30, who is married and living in Austin, Texas, where he designs video games.
“We tried to keep him away from video games his entire childhood,” noted David with a grin. “We should have tried keeping him away from medicine or law.”
Summer travels for Gier encompass work and music, which are one and the same, guest conducting from St. Louis to Singapore and providing leadership for the Christian-based Crescendo Summer Institute, tapping into spirituality that dawned during his days with Aunt Ruth in Arkansas.
It’s not uncommon for conductors to work into their 80s and 90s – their life expectancy is longer due to constant arm motion and high IQ – and Gier shows no signs of slowing down.
But after all the shifting and uncertainty of his childhood, it’s nice to have a home base he can count on, a community that he understands and cultivates and aims to improve. Angela has a garden that she nurtures each year, full of colorful wildflowers that brighten her days.
She compares this to what her husband has found in South Dakota, the way music and relationships draw serenity from the soil.
“David plants gardens with people,” she said. “And you have to stay in a place to do that.”
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.