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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

December 10, 2004

Des Moines Symphony has Iowa State flavor

by Dave Gieseke, LAS Public Relations

During a break at a recent rehearsal of the Des Moines Symphony, everyone with an Iowa State University connection gathered for a photo. It was quite a mixture: music department faculty, current students, long-time members and newcomers.

In fact, almost one-fourth of the symphony's 90 members either work, go to school or are alumni of Iowa State.

It wasn't always that way.

The Des Moines Symphony was established in 1937 as an adjunct of Drake University and remained that way for 30 years. Recently, however, the group has taken on a decidedly Iowa State flavor.

"The Iowa State membership has fluctuated, depending on openings," said Joseph Messenger, professor of music and a 34-year clarinetist with the group.

"About three-fourths of the orchestra is involved in some sort of musical employment, typically teaching, while the rest come from various careers," he said. "There are a number of people who have been in the orchestra 15 to 25 years," he said.

Some of the Des Moines Symphony members with ISU

Some -- but not all -- of the members of the Des Moines Symphony with a connection to Iowa State University. Photo by Dave Gieseke.

One of those is David Stuart, associate professor of music, and member since 1976.

"A job opened up right when I got here," the trombonist said. "Performing with a symphony orchestra is the nature of the research for performing musicians. You have to play -- that's what you do."

While playing with any group is secondary to teaching, the faculty members say that performing helps them in the classroom.

"Being in the company of other musicians, making music with other people, working with different conductors -- it all makes me a better teacher," Stuart said. "It's good for me to find out a different approach to something."

Senior violin performance major Gretchen Theesfield plays second violin in the symphony. She is in her third season with the orchestra and juggles that with classes and membership in the ISU Symphony Orchestra.

"It was nerve wracking at the beginning and a little intimidating because the professionalism of the (Des Moines) symphony is at a whole different level than I was used to," she said. "But it's the most rewarding experience, musically, I've had."

Theesfield is a permanent member of the group. Other members, some with Iowa State connections, are extras who perform on a special composition during a concert, primarily in the wind and percussion sections.

The group's principal percussionist is Barry Larkin, associate professor of music. Like Messenger and Stuart, Larkin auditioned for the group right after he arrived on campus in 1993.

One of the perks to the job, he said, is that he hires extra performers in his section. Typically he will seek out an Iowa State student.

"If I can walk up to a student and tell them they can make $500 for a week's work doing something they love, they jump at it," Larkin said. "It's a real thrill to have students up on the stage with me during a performance."


Almost one-fourth of the Des Moines symphony's 90 members either work or study at, or are alumni of Iowa State.