San Juan Symphony will open season with program devoted to French composers

Size of orchestra swells to 75 members for this weekend's performances

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The symphony performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8 at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus.
  • Visit sanjuansymphony.org for ticket information or call 970-382-9753.
  • The centerpiece of this weekend's concert will be a performance of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero."

FARMINGTON — So much for easing into a new season.

When the San Juan Symphony takes the stage in Farmington this weekend for the first performance of its new campaign, music director Thomas Heuser has planned a bold program of pieces by French composers designed to start things off with a bang.

"We want to make a big splash right out of the gate and welcome the audience back with some very impressive sounds," Heuser said.

The orchestra will consist of 75 members for this concert, which Heuser described as the symphony's largest assemblage in years.

"What's neat about this program is it showcases the return of the big orchestra," he said, noting that many of those musicians will be playing obscure instruments that are not normally part of the group's makeup.

The addition of those instruments will allow the orchestra to explore the unique sounds featured in the pieces in this program, he said.

"We don't get to play this French music very often," Heuser said. "To hear it live is special."

The centerpiece of this weekend's concert will be a performance of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero," but the program also includes compositions by Claude Debussy, Arthur Honneger, Eric Satie and Lily Boulanger. Heuser described Satie as a bit of a musical "hooligan" in his day, mostly for his habit of exploring minimalism in his music. In many ways, he said, Satie would come to personify the musical abstractionism of late 19th and early 20th century French classical music, he said.

Boulanger is a little-known early 20th century composer whose work only now is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, he said. The symphony will perform her "Of a Spring Morning," which Heuser described as a fast, virtuosic, very colorful piece of music.

"She's finally getting recognized as a genius composer," he said.

The San Juan Symphony performs its season-opening concert this weekend at San Juan College in Farmington.

The most dynamic composition to be performed this weekend is Honneger's "Pacific 231," which Heuser described as a tone poem inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive. The piece begins slowly, laboring through its early stages in a way that mimics the sound of a locomotive's churning of the gears. Slowly, the composition picks up momentum, reaching maximum speed and energy before coming to an abrupt climax in a fashion that reminds the listener of a locomotive slamming on its brakes as it roars into the station and comes to a stop.

"Each of the pieces requires a great big orchestra and lots of special effects to pull off," he said.

The chance to lead such a large group is something Heuser said he will enjoy, though he noted he appreciates the opportunity to lead any size group of musicians these days. Just last weekend, he said, he served as the guest conductor for a small chamber orchestra in North Carolina and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"I am sort of a changed person (since the COVID-19 pandemic)," he said. "Leading any size of ensemble is a thrill. I will never take it for granted again."

Thomas Heuser

As he begins his sixth year at the helm of the San Juan Symphony, Heuser said he takes great satisfaction in the way his orchestra has matured over that time.

"I think we're a more focused and (robust) ensemble than we were before pandemic times," he said.

One of Heuser's chief goals when he joined the organization was to create a unified level of expectations for all his musicians, he said.

"There had been some level of differentiation between local musicians and traveling musicians," he said. "Now, everyone is held to the same standards. … I want everyone to know there's not an unimportant seat in the orchestra. … Everyone needs to show up and pull their weight and perform with a lot of energy."

He said he also believes the San Juan Symphony has done a much better job of connecting with the cities of Farmington and Durango, Colorado, where it performs.

"We've made an effort to reach out and build connections," he said. "It feels like our relationships are stronger and deeper than ever. I'm proud of that. That's very important for us, as it's important for any arts organization."

The symphony performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Visit sanjuansymphony.org for ticket information or call 970-382-9753.

The orchestra also will perform Sunday, Oct. 9 in Durango, a concert that will be livestreamed on the symphony's website for subscribers and made available for on-demand viewing for a week afterward.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.