Small Town, Big Symphony

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on August 13, 2000

Spellbinding! was one womans reaction to a February performance of Vivaldis The Four Seasons, as swelling applause suggested the music captivated others as well. The many moods of Vivaldis music have stirred audiences since the 18th century, but this wasnt a concert hall in Milan, Vienna, or New York. It was the community center in Cherokee, Iowa, (pop. 5,500), home of the 60-member Cherokee Symphony.

Conductor Lee Thorson says he hasnt a clue to explain the symphonys growing success, but board members, players, and others credit Thorsonwho has been conductor since 1981. A farmer, cellist, and part-time music instructor at two northwest Iowa universities, Thorson enjoys providing an outlet for people to play, and enabling young musicians to grow.

Im doing this because I have a good time, he says.

The symphony, founded in 1956, is the legacy of Merle Robinson and Della Beth Thomson, two women who taught an adult education orchestra class and were eager to start a symphony in Cherokee. They rallied support, and the orchestra has been a growing source of pride ever since.

Today, the symphony typically plays to a sell-out audience of 350 people at least three times a year. Support comes from a board of directors, which raises funds through program advertising, association memberships, and $6 ticket sales. (Children attend free.)

We live within our budget of $12,000 to $15,000, says Donna Hicks, board member. Costs include the conductors salary, music rental, guest artist fees, and the occasional purchase of instruments.

Hicks remembers her nervousness as a new board member in 1969 when the symphony bought a grand piano. All nine board members had to sign the note, she recalls.

The board does various hands-on tasks as well. Hicks collates programs before each concert, and other members act as promoters, stage carpenters, lighting technicians, or whatever is needed.

Orchestra members, all volunteers, come from miles around and all walks of life, and include high school and college students, music teachers, retirees, professors, a pharmacist, an auto mechanic/minister, and a computer technician.

Three annual concerts include a fall pops concert, a winter classical program, and a spring Young Artist concert, featuring four soloists selected by audition.

Part of the symphonys mission is encouraging young people to perform and appreciate music. Blake Burroughs, a high school senior, recalls first hearing the symphony as a child. I thought, like wow! he says. He now sits next to first chair flutist Walter Beckwith. Hes an old hand, and I learn a lot from him.

Orchestra member Carol Peterson brought a busload of 40 students from her Storm Lake public school string program to hear The Four Seasons rehearsal. I want my students to see what they can do with their music, she says.

Weekly rehearsals precede each concert, and the orchestra meets for final rehearsal at 1 p.m. on concert day. At 2:30 p.m. players break for sandwiches, brownies, and punch prepared by The Tone Circle, a womens music organization. Musicians in casual wear change into concert attiretuxes for men and black dresses for womenfor the 4 p.m. concert.

Special concerts are held occasionally. Residents still talk about a 1998 concert performed when riders on the week long Des Moines Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) came to town.

Thorson, his wife, Roxy (also a cellist), and a dozen orchestra members were among the riders. Upon hearing about the concert, some musicians on the ride wanted to play, and people scrambled to round up instruments for them. One woman, formerly with the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra, was given a school violin with tape marks on the neck showing a beginner where the fingers go. Thorson conducted wearing bike shorts and a telltale black grease mark on his right leg.

Many riders told us the concert was the best thing that ever happened on RAGBRAI, says Thorson.

And many people would say the Cherokee Symphony is the best thing that ever happened to northwest Iowa.