“I want to make the orchestra shine.”
Brimming with energy, Thomas Heuser, the new music director of the San Juan Symphony, said exactly that in an interview at the Community Concert Hall last week. He made no effort to disguise his enthusiasm for the orchestra, the community and the region.
“The key thing is that now I’m here,” he said. “On August 1, we moved to Durango, and we’re making our home here.” Heuser meant his family: “my wife Lauren and my son Theo – who will be 2 this week.”
By all measures, Heuser, 34, is a young conductor himself. Emerging in a highly competitive field, he now stands at the helm of a 30-year-old institution as it begins its next voyage. The San Juan Symphony may have had modest beginnings as a gathering of musician friends in Durango and Farmington, but it is heading into its 31st year with considerable wind at its back.
The orchestra’s 30 years of music making has brought classical masterpieces and challenging new works to audiences in Durango, Farmington, Cortez and Telluride. From the beginning, core professionals from Durango and Farmington have anchored the ensemble. As it has grown in stature, the highly respected symphony has morphed into a regional organization. Today, it augments its ranks by drawing musicians from as nearby as Santa Fe and far away as Salt Lake City.
“On our first program this season, I want to highlight and celebrate the musicians we have,” Heuser said. “I want to make the orchestra shine.”
Titled “Fresh Faces and Firebird,” the Oct. 8 and 10 program is all about youth. Works by Mozart, Dvorák, Stravinsky and Clint Needham span more than 200 years, but all were composed by musicians in their late 20s or 30s. You’ll hear the overture for Mozart’s opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” He composed it when he was 30. Antonin Dvorák composed a beautiful romance work for violin and orchestra when he was in his late 30s. Igor Stravinsky was a mere 27 when he conceived the ballet music for “The Firebird.”
In 2013, American composer Needham had just turned 32 when he was commissioned by Heuser to create a new work. It’s an uplifting tribute to music lovers. Heuser said he wanted to honor two board members of the Idaho Falls Symphony with the commission. He continues to serve as music director of the orchestra in Idaho Falls.
The first half of the concert, Heuser said, will feature three short pieces and the final half of the concert will be filled by the orchestral suite Stravinsky contrived after the success of the full Firebird ballet.
“Mozart’s overture is lively, and it’s so nice to hear it played just by itself,” Heuser said. “Then, we’ll play a relatively new work by a colleague of mine. Clint Needham’s ‘Spires.’ He and I were grad school buddies at Indiana (University). Out here in the West, we have natural spires. Just think of Monument Valley and other national parks. Clint used old church music in an entirely new way that’s so relevant. The music has very colorful percussion and lots of full brass.
“We’ll conclude the first half with Dvorák’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra – featuring Brent Williams, our concertmaster. Brent and I got together and decided on the Dvorák piece. It will showcase his remarkable talent, and it’s the first time Brent will be fully featured as a soloist.”
After intermission, the orchestra will perform the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s concert suite after the famous “Firebird.” When the full ballet was first performed in Paris on June 25, 1910, it caused a sensation and launched Stravinsky on an international career. It preceded the far more revolutionary “Rite of Spring.” The composer’s body of early work catapulted him to the forefront of modernist music.
“I’ve conducted ‘Firebird’ many times, and 10 years ago, I conducted it for my master’s thesis in Indiana,” Heuser said. “I learned the score with Stephen Smith, who was a former director of the San Juan Symphony, which makes a nice connection for me. We’re not performing the complete work, only the suite – the second of three concert versions Stravinsky composed. It’s hard to believe it was originally written in 1909-10, because it is so modern. It still has the quintessential freshness of a new work.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.