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70 years of the Idaho Falls Symphony: As symphony celebrates its past, music director makes ambitious plans for the future

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The Idaho Falls Symphony will celebrate its 70th anniversary this year.

And with Symphony on Sunday having begun last weekend, Teton Valley residents and visitors alike have the unique opportunity to experience the regional symphony first hand through September 15th. The Driggs Downtown Association features talented musicians from the Idaho Falls Symphony as a courtesy to the public and ahead of the 70th Anniversary Season which starts September 2019 running through April 2020.

The symphony announced in May that its music director, Thomas Heuser, signed a three-year contract extension.

Thomas Heuser - Idaho Falls Symphony

Heuser

When he was hired in 2011, Heuser, 36, joined a long list of music directors and conductors that have led the Idaho Falls Symphony since its inception in the mid-20th century.

Heuser said the symphony’s history and its status in the community drew him from Ohio to Idaho Falls, just after the symphony celebrated its 60th anniversary.

“An orchestra occupies an important niche in a community as a presenter of live classical music and a connection with the rest of the world through this great art form,” Heuser said. “An orchestra that’s made it 60 seasons or more really shows that the community embraces that symphony for that role that it plays. If an orchestra has stood the test of time that speaks volumes for the kind of community that supports it.”

Heuser is the Idaho Falls Symphony’s 10th music director, and after the next three years, he will become one of the longest-serving directors in its history.

Beginnings

Lowell Jobe, a violinist for the Idaho Falls Symphony for more than 45 years, wrote a history of the organization for its 60th anniversary in 2009. Jobe, who served twice as president of the Idaho Falls Symphony Society, died in 2010.{/span}(tncms-asset)7ceedc26-9f7a-11e9-9a54-00163ec2aa77[1](/tncms-asset)

Like many of the symphony’s musicians, Jobe, a chemist, came to Idaho Falls to work at the nuclear site west of town. People connected to Idaho National Laboratory make up much of the symphony to this day.

“A very large contingent of musicians came along with people who came out here to work at the lab,” said Alekzandria Peugh, 30, executive director of the Idaho Falls Symphony. “You have these Ph.D. scientists who either themselves were musically inclined or had spouses and families who were musically inclined. They needed something to do to keep that skill set up, and so they formed this orchestra.”

Comprised of Idaho Falls Music Club musicians, the Idaho Falls Symphony was founded in 1949, according to Jobe’s account. Marcell Bird directed 44 musicians in the first symphony concert on April 26, 1950, at the O.B. Bell Junior High Auditorium.

Professor Harold Mealy, of what was then Idaho State College, was named the symphony’s first full-time conductor, a position he held until 1960. During that time, the symphony performed three to five concerts per year, including performances with nationally recognized artists Joseph Schuster and Grant Johanneson.

By 1961 the nonprofit symphony had grown enough to warrant setting up a governing board. The Idaho Falls Symphony Society was incorporated, by-laws were written and a board of directors was elected. Jobe became the first president.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the symphony had five different conductors, including Donald McGlothlin and James Schoepflin, both educators at Idaho State University. As the symphony flourished on stage, attracting world-famous guest talent, it established partnerships in the community, such as an In-School Music Program for training young string players. The program was later adopted and expanded by Idaho Falls School District 91.

In 1977, Mel Flood became the symphony’s first conductor-music director, combining two roles. Under his leadership, the orchestra expanded its audience by giving concerts in Arco, Salmon, Blackfoot and Montpelier.(tncms-asset)06c2530c-9f7a-11e9-a16e-00163ec2aa77[2](/tncms-asset)

After Flood, Carl Eberl served as composer-music director from 1980 to 1988.

“Celebrity artists Peter Nero, The Dukes of Dixieland, Ferrante and Teicher, Peter Duchin and repeat appearances by ‘Doc’ Severinsen and Roger Williams highlighted concerts during these years,” Jobe wrote. “Notable among the works performed was the monumental Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler.”

Following Eberl’s resignation, the symphony was led by guest conductors for one season. Then, John LoPiccolo was named music director, a position he held until 1998.

George Adams, a reportedly tough director who expecting disciplined, committed musicians, led the symphony from 1999 to 2010. According to orchestra-members’ accounts, the organization and its programs matured during Adams’ tenure.

Karen Juell, 63, of Idaho Falls has been a regular attendee of the Idaho Falls Symphony since the 1980s. Juell said her parents, who were “big supporters of the arts in Idaho Falls,” took her to concerts, and she later introduced her son to the symphony.

“I love classical music,” said Juell, whose favorite composer is Antonín Dvořák. “I have always enjoyed going to hear the symphony wherever I’ve lived. We’re very fortunate to have a symphony of the quality that we have here.”

Juell said Heuser is “very good,” and throughout the four decades she’s attended the symphony, it has improved.

“Through the years, I think the quality has gotten better,” she said. “It’s always been good, but I think it’s gotten more professional.”

Heuser, now in his eighth year as music director, hopes to increase the symphony’s professionalism by selecting increasingly difficult programs each year.

Ambitious plans

The 70th season, which will include six programs, will be the most ambitious of Heuser’s tenure, he said.

“We have more 20th and 21st century music which tends to be a little more technical than music from the 18th and 19th centuries: larger orchestras, more instruments,” Heuser said. “As the orchestras get bigger, obviously, the coordinating of all the musicians is more of a challenge. The musicians have to be better listeners and better communicators and all of that just needs to continue to grow as we go into this more ambitious music.”

The symphony’s musicians, a core group of about 60 people, can play at a professional-level — “They’ll tell you they can play anything,” Heuser said — but it’s not a professional job. Prior to 2010, musicians were strictly volunteers. Now, each musician receives a stipend for their time rehearsing and performing.

It’s not the money but the audiences that keep the musicians playing, Heuser said.

“When you have a great audience and they’re really engaged with the performance and express their appreciation, then you, as a musician, sit up in your chair and give it all you’ve got,” he said. “You know what you’re playing has that impact on the community.”

Heuser and Peugh, the symphony’s only full-time employees, think a lot about their audience. They work together to select programming that balances new music, which Idaho Falls hasn’t heard before, and familiar music that’s sure to sell tickets.

“You like what you know and you know what you like,” Heuser said. “There is a thirst and hunger for the great classics: symphonies by Beethoven, ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Things that people really know and love still are the most popular. There is a growing interest in movie music, music from video games, early pop music, things that are current. There’s a lot of appetite for that in Idaho Falls.”

This season, the orchestra will perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and a concert of all 20th-century female composers, as well as a movie and television concert, with music by Danny Elfman, composer of scores for “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Simpsons.”

The more accessible programs, such as the Danny Elfman concert or a recent concert of John Williams’ music, are meant to attract a younger audience, who may not be fans of classical music.(tncms-asset)e882f8f8-9842-11e9-ace7-00163ec2aa77[3](/tncms-asset)

“There are a lot of conversations happening about this fear that young people with families aren’t going to the symphony,” Peugh said. “Our goal, as an orchestra, is to provide programming that will entice them maybe once, maybe twice, a year. We try to make sure there’s something that’s our family go-getter every year.”

About a quarter of the Idaho Falls Symphony’s funding comes from ticket sales. The rest comes from donations and fundraising.

In 2017, the symphony’s board of directors hired an outside consultant to review the organization. The review recommended the symphony focus on its advertising efforts and sponsor recognition. But the main recommendation was that more staff is needed.

“I have four part-time staff, and I would love for them to be full-time,” Peugh said. “Having a limited number of people and so many places to be and so many things to do can be a real challenge.”

As Peugh looks to expand the administrative arm of the nonprofit, Heuser is focusing on increasing the professionalism of the symphony and its programs.

“Now that we’re looking at season 70 and going into season 75 and 80 and 100, I just think that that is the trajectory that we’re on: the increased quality and an increased number of offerings for the community to engage with the symphony,” Heuser said. “It’s going to be a fantastic 70th season.”

To view the Idaho Falls Symphony’s 70th season schedule, visit www.ifsymphony.org/20192020.

For Symphony on Sunday’s schedule, please visit www.tetonvalleynews.net.

Reporter Ryan Suppe can be reached at 208-542-6762. Follow him on Twitter: @salsuppe.

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