Mahler in Sioux Falls (with yet another glance at Klaus Makela)

I have just returned from a trip to Sioux Falls, where I heard Delta David Gier lead the South Dakota Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. As readers of this blog know, I regard the SDSO as an American cultural institution that must be studied and emulated.

When I arrived at my balcony seat I was addressed by a couple of young men sitting just in front of me. They had heard my pre-concert conversation with David Gier. They had driven for four and a half hours from the University of North Dakota to hear Mahler. One of them expressed regret that there was no Bruckner on the SDSO season.

Seated to my left was David Chin, who introduced himself as a conductor at St. Augustana College in Sioux Falls. He had just performed (with commentary) Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. I had already learned about this event from Gier, who was immensely impressed. Chin was seated with half a dozen students. How many more were in the hall? I asked. Countless, he said. 

Earlier in the day, ten conducting students from South Dakota State turned up at the dress rehearsal. For the performance, 28 were bussed from their campus in Brookings, an hour away. 

The audience (strikingly inter-generational) numbered 1,200, the orchestra and chorus 88 and 82, respectively. Sioux Falls has a population of 200,000.

Before the music began, Jennifer Teisinger, the orchestra’s executive director, saluted its retiring members. The first name was Shireen Ranschau, in the cello section. She had joined the SDSO 54 years ago. Teisinger told the audience something it already knew – that the concert celebrated Delta David Gier’s twentieth season as music director. He had been asked to pick whatever music he wished. Gier had already led the SDSO in a complete Mahler cycle. He decided to return to No. 3 – which is in six movements and lasts about 100 minutes.

Before launching the symphony, Gier shared with the audience a sentence or two for each movement. He said that Mahler had originally titled the slow finale “What Love Tells Me” – and that Mahler had in mind what the Greeks called agape – spiritual love. Then Gier (who is a devout Christian) quoted a superscription on Mahler’s draft: “Behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost!” 

Gier’s rapt performance of Mahler’s finale was something unforgettable. I recently had occasion to watch 26-yer-old Klaus Makela conduct this music (on youtube) with his magnificent Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 2022. Makela’s reading is tremendous, enraptured by the ardor of youth. Gier’s performance was enraptured by the pathos of experience. 

The string choir of the South Dakota Symphony is a marvel (would that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had such expressive violins). Everything sounds deeply felt. The section leaders are a multi-cultural quartet (Korean, Taiwanese, Polish, American) that in fact frequently performs as the Dakota String Quartet. The quartet regularly visits Native American reservations and works intensively with children there. So does the orchestra’s Dakota Wind Quintet. This is the SDSO’s signature Lakota Music Project, about which I have often written. It is one reason the orchestra’s musicians perform with self-evident pride.

The principal double bass, Mario Chiarello, also conducts the Lincoln High School orchestra – one of fourteen middle and high school orchestras in town. (There are in addition four South Dakota Symphony youth orchestras. Elementary schools offer string instruction beginning in grade four.) Chiarello’s Lincoln High orchestra has performed all nine Beethoven symphonies. For his retirement next year, he will conduct the finale of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (with chorus).

David Gier’s performance of Mahler’s Third was live-streamed. But SDSO concerts are not archived on the web – the orchestra lacks the financial resources for that. Back in the 1990s, when I was running the Brooklyn Philharmonic, I was able to secure large grants from the Hearst, Knight, Mellon, and Rockefeller Foundations. Nowadays, not a single major American charitable foundation supports classical music.  And yet the example of the South Dakota Symphony is vital. Right now. 

To read my “American Scholar” article about the national significance of the South Dakota Symphony, including commentary by Alex Ross of “The New Yorker,” click here.

To hear my 50-minute NPR version of that article, click here.

To read my recent reflections on “ripeness” in musical interpretation, also in “The American Scholar,” click here.

To read about the abandonment of classical music by our nation’s leading philanthropic organizations, click here.

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