San Juan Symphony welcomes new music director
FARMINGTON – If you’re a classical music fan who considers the conductor an integral part of any great orchestra performance, Thomas Heuser, the San Juan Symphony's newly hired music director, has news for you.
“We don’t do anything,” he said. “We don’t make any sound. We just take the bow for the orchestra. All the work we do is behind the scenes.”
In other words, if an orchestra and the individual who leads it haven’t done their work during rehearsal, there’s nothing the conductor can do during the concert to make it memorable. As far as Heuser is concerned, it’s all about preparation, preparation, preparation.
“That is absolutely true,” he said by phone last week from Oakland, Calif., where he lives with his wife Lauren, just a week after being named to succeed Arthur Post as music director of the Durango-based orchestra that also serves Farmington. To illustrate his point, Heuser recalled the feeling he had when he was asked to step in on short notice to lead an orchestra in a performance after the director had fallen ill.
“You realize how limited your effect can be,” he said, laughing. “(The orchestra goes) on auto pilot, and you grasp that, you reach your understanding with the musicians in rehearsal.”
As the SJS music director, Heuser will be responsible for much more than just leading the orchestra during concerts. But that is also his most visible role and perhaps the one by which symphony patrons will build their opinion of him.
Heuser said a conductor is never supposed to describe his own style — “That’s up for the audience to tell me,” he said — but he said he will be the kind of leader who promotes a persistent and energetic atmosphere in rehearsal, while still allowing his musicians the space to try things and be bold in their playing.
“I’m persistent to get the details to come to life,” he said.
Heuser, a St. Louis native whose parents were both faculty members at Washington University, credits his piano instructor in college, Blanca Uribe, with challenging his approach to music as a young man and taking him to a different level.
“She would hear me playing something and say, ‘Why didn’t you do what the composer wrote?’” he recalled. “I always knew I was supposed to follow what was written on the page, but that was still very eye opening. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with details and having an appreciation for the composer’s intentions, while still being creative.”
The ability to make those kinds of adjustments is, in large part, why Heuser earned the job with the San Juan Symphony, according to board president Polly Morgenstern.
“He is very young, but he’s a very mature musician,” she said. “He’s got a grasp of the 360 degrees of the job of being the music director, which is way more than being a conductor.”
Morgenstern said when Heuser was selected from a pool of three finalists for the position, it was because the other members of the search committee and the board thought he would excel at the fundraising, education and community outreach aspects of the job, in addition to piecing together the lineup each season and leading the orchestra.
“He’s also a stellar musician,” she said. “He kind of had everything in one package.”
Morgenstern said the other two finalists — each of whom took a turn leading the San Juan Symphony during its recently concluded season — was very well qualified, too.
“We felt like we got the crème de la crème, but at the same time, we would have been well served by any of the candidates,” she said.
Morgenstern said the organization’s patrons seem very happy with the choice of Heuser, many of them expressing delight at his performance as conductor of the symphony’s “Pictures and Visions” concerts in November in Farmington and Durango.
Heuser said he was pleased with how that experience went, noting that already having gotten off on the right foot with the orchestra will provide him with a running start when he and his wife relocate to the Four Corners later this year.
This won’t be Heuser’s first music director position. He serves in that same capacity for the Idaho Falls (Idaho) Symphony in a community of roughly the same size as Farmington, a job he plans to keep. That’s not an uncommon approach among classical music professionals in smaller markets, he said.
“No, in fact, it’s necessary when you think about the requirements,” he said. “Each orchestra at this level is part time, even though you think about it around the clock and work on it all the time. But a full-time position as a conductor is what you want.”
Heuser isn’t worried about the demands of one job impacting his ability to serve the other. He said he has been commuting to Idaho Falls for five years from Oakland, although now he’ll be making that commute from the Four Corners and is a little worried about the reliability of wintertime travel between two intermountain West communities.
Heuser said he focuses strongly on community engagement whenever he’s in Idaho Falls, and that’s an approach he plans to adopt here.
“I’m all about putting myself into a community,” he said. “Wherever the orchestra goes, I can be the mouthpiece and talk about the importance of music, with a lot of emphasis on community involvement and education.”
Among the San Juan Symphony’s greatest strengths, Heuser said, is the fact that it serves two communities.
“That’s really special,” he said. “That gives us the chance to interact with a wider audience. To be able to work on music education in both communities is really cool.”
Heuser said he’ll be making a point of building good relationships with the two colleges in the SJS market, Fort Lewis College and San Juan College, especially since many of the musicians in the orchestra are faculty members or even students.
At this level, orchestras typically are composed of those college instructors and college students, as well as accomplished amateurs and professionals, Heuser said, adding that the SJS already has the right mix of those components. By his estimation, it also has something far more valuable.
“There’s great camaraderie, a great attitude among the players,” he said. “We can put on great performances with that.”
The flip side of the twin-market nature of the organization, of course, is that Heuser’s attention will be divided between them, especially since the SJS occasionally performs concerts in Cortez, Colo., in addition to Farmington and Durango.
“The orchestra can only be so many places at once,” he said. “And there may be concerts when a community is left out, so that’s something we have to take into consideration, scheduling wise.”
The other challenge is to meet the fundraising base in both communities and make both understand they are getting their money’s worth, rather than simply supporting classical music in one community at the expense of another, he said.
Morgenstern said local classical music fans will get the chance to meet Heuser for themselves during a May 15 brunch at the Artifacts Gallery here and a tapas dinner that night in Durango. Heuser said his residency in the Four Corners in November didn’t leave much time for interacting with members of the community, but it did provide him with an introduction to the area, and he’s looking forward to experiencing it fully.
“I’m a great outdoors enthusiast,” he said. “If anything helps your music, it’s having other interests.”
The time he spent in Idaho Falls introduced him to the world of fly fishing, he said, and that’s a pursuit he plans to take advantage of here, along with hiking and backpacking. He’s especially excited about seeing the red rock country of southwest Utah and the high desert of New Mexico, since he has little familiarity that terrain.
“That’s a whole world I can’t wait to explore,” he said.
As pleased as Heuser is with his new assignment, SJS leaders are happy to have a new music director in place for one very important reason, Morgenstern said.
“Artistic decisions had to be basically postponed for a year,” she said. “The board doesn’t make artistic decisions. So we’ve left everything as it was under Arthur Post. We’ve made no substantive changes over the last year.”
Heuser said it’s too early for him to speculate about any artistic changes he might make in the orchestra, explaining that getting to know his musicians better will be one of his priorities when he gets here.
“Rehearsals are when you get to know the musicians,” he said. “That happens usually within the first couple of minutes. First impressions are important, and as rehearsals continue, rapport is built. I thought we did some great work in the short amount of time I was there in the fall. We were able to take those pieces to an intellectually high level, and those performances were fantastic.”
Heuser anticipates more of the same in the future.
“I’ll come to expect a very high level of performance” for this year and for many years to come, he said, “along with an increased level of commitment on everybody’s part, from students on up.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.