FARMINGTON – It was an oil and gas town on the rise, it was a burgeoning small mountain community. It was the 1970s and, nationally, it was a time of unrest and political divide. Charles Dickens might have had his two cities, but Farmington and Durango had two symphonies.
Or at least they did.
In 1972, a group of Farmington musicians formed an orchestra known as the Little Symphony, and a year later, it would rename itself the San Juan Symphony, said Rochelle Mann, board member of the San Juan Symphony and musician. The Durango Civic Symphony also formed in the early 1970s. Separated by a state line and just over 50 miles, the two symphonies would coexist, each challenged with the operating costs of running a small orchestra.
This status quo would hold for more than a decade, neither symphony really growing. While the San Juan Symphony and the Durango Civic Symphony both included local amateur and professional musicians and college students, it was hard for either to reach the level and mass of players needed for the instrumentation required of most orchestra pieces, said Mann, who plays the flute and started performing with Farmington’s symphony in 1983.
In 1986, San Juan Symphony’s conductor at the time, Jan Roshong, floated the idea that the two symphonies should merge. It made sense, Mann said; most of the musicians between the two communities already knew each other.
“We got the best people from both cities,” she said. “The orchestra immediately sounded better, and we were able to grow.”
The merger also acted as a bridge between the two towns. “Because this orchestra is shared between the two, it links us and does away with the myth that what happens in Farmington doesn’t happen in Durango or vice versa,” said the San Juan Symphony Musical Director Thomas Heuser.
A regional appealCombining the musicians and assets of the two symphonies helped a reborn San Juan Symphony reach a higher level of skill and regional reputation, said Heuser, who is in his fourth season with the orchestra. He previously worked in Oakland, California, for five years. He said the shared symphony is unique in his experience. “The symphony caters to the two communities and is owned by the two communities. We’re more regional, and it’s a wider community as a result.”
In addition to being able to pull from a larger audience, the combined symphony allows for a richer draw of musicians, too. “We have a wider and deeper reach,” Heuser said. “We have, over the years, built up a really excellent group of professional players.”
About half of the musicians are from Farmington and Durango, while the other half are from throughout the Four Corners states, traveling in on concert weekends from as far away as Boulder, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, said San Juan Symphony Executive Director Kathy Myrick. While the orchestra was originally a volunteer affair, it has evolved into an all-professional regional orchestra and began paying all of the musicians in the late 1980s, Myrick said.
Heuser, who ultimately selects the music for the concerts, said it’s a joy and a challenge to select a program with appeal between both communities. “It’s not a totally different audience, but there are some differences,” he said. He’s observed Durango audiences tend to be more open to contemporary shows, while the Western traditional shows tend to do better with Farmington audiences.
While the symphony runs a total of four programs each year, it performs each one in Durango and Farmington, resulting in eight total performances. The most recent show – “Drama and Destiny” on Nov. 2 and 3 – was a packed house of 600 at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, while Farmington saw just over half that, with 310 in the audience at Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall at San Juan College, Myrick said.
There might be perceived and real differences between Farmington and Durango, but Mann said, both towns benefit from having an orchestra that is of a higher caliber.
For the musicians who call this region home, the symphony is an example of what binds these towns together. “There’s always been a bit of a difference in the two towns, but I think we have the potential to bring (them) together,” Mann said. “We’ve certainly done that within the orchestra, and it’s just a matter of spinning that into the communities.”