S.D. Symphony conductor reaching career crescendo

The 63-year-old Gier sat in a conference room at the Washington Pavilion in downtown Sioux Falls on a recent afternoon and pondered the unmistakable momentum of the state’s century-old orchestra.

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South Dakota Symphony Orchestra Conductor Delta David Gier has been with the organization for almost 20 years.
(Photo South Dakota Symphony)

Delta David Gier has a lot to look forward to.

He’s approaching 20 years as conductor and music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, which has overcome financial challenges and a global pandemic to position itself as a cultural force on the Great Plains, drawing national acclaim for its community engagement and musical repertoire.

The 63-year-old Gier, his trademark tousled hair showing touches of gray, sat in a conference room at the Washington Pavilion in downtown Sioux Falls on a recent afternoon and pondered the unmistakable momentum of the state’s century-old orchestra, which concludes the 2022-23 season on April 29 with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

First there was the May 2022 article by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who dubbed Gier’s 75-member ensemble – just 13 of them full-time – “one of America’s boldest orchestras” after attending a world premiere performance of the latest score from composer John Luther Adams at the Pavilion’s 1,800-seat Mary W. Sommervold Hall.

That high-level praise, plus the ongoing Lakota Music Project, Gier’s ambitious effort to meld orchestral styles with traditional Native songs and ceremonies, drew the attention of music-loving philanthropist and South Dakota native Dean Buntrock and wife Rosemarie.


Their $2 million donation became the largest in the organization’s history and will fund a performance in 2025 of a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on the Norwegian immigrant novel “Giants in the Earth,” which marks its 50th anniversary that same year.

The Lakota Music Project has evolved into Bridging Cultures, an initiative aided by the Bush Prize for Community Innovation awarded to the South Dakota Symphony in 2016. The program will explore musical partnerships with immigrant and refugee communities and highlight artists such as South Asian composer Reena Esmail and Iranian composer Niloufar Iravani, who will perform as part of this year’s season finale on April 29.

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“When you’re standing in front of an orchestra playing great music, I won’t lie, it’s arush,” said Delta David Gier. “When everyone’s in sync and we’re all there to createsomething beautiful, there’s really nothing like it.”
(Photo: Submitted)

It's an exciting time, in other words, for a former New York Philharmonic assistant conductor who arrived in Sioux Falls in 2004 with the stated goal of finding a sense of place beyond standard-fare composers and prominent patrons and then actually embark on that search, shattering a few stereotypes along the way.

“One of the things I brought to the South Dakota Symphony was a conviction that an orchestra should serve its unique community uniquely,” said Gier.

“So what does South Dakota need in an orchestra? The first thing is that it needs great music, and we need to play great music as well as we possibly can, and we do that. But beyond that, what do you do with education and community engagement? And who are you engaging?”

Scott Lawrence, a longtime symphony board member who served as chairman from 2013 to 2022, remembers hearing that message two decades ago and being taken aback, just as audiences recoiled at times when hearing contemporary American composers championed by Gier rather than the easier listening of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

“Never before had I heard someone talk about, ‘What we do with our communities?’” said Lawrence. “The symphony never talked about that kind of stuff. It was just music on the stage. That was what we did. But David had a vision and a passion for more than that, and it wasn’t just lip service. He lives it every day.”

The results are encouraging.


The nonprofit has an annual budget of $2.4 million. It reported net assets of $3.4 million in fiscal year 2022, up from $2.7 million the previous year.

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Delta David Gier and the South Dakota Symphony will revive the 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Giants in the Earth” opera by Douglas Moore, based on Ole Rolvaag’s 1925novel.
(Photo: Submitted)

That’s quite a turnaround from just over a decade ago when the Great Recession nearly forced it into extinction. Everyone, including Gier, took a pay cut at the time, only to encounter new challenges when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Subscriptions are down 12% from the last pre-pandemic season, but the $2 million gift includes funds to boost marketing and outreach.

Besides leading the 75-member orchestra, Gier wants to grow a crop of future musicians. The symphony’s educational programming includes a youth orchestra of 137 musicians comprising five student ensembles that has sent alumni to “top-shelf conservatories around the country,” according to Gier.

He frowned in contemplation when asked about his future and that of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. His wife, Angela, acknowledged that a dream job with a big-city orchestra could still emerge, but it’s not uncommon for conductors to have two or three orchestras. And Gier is mindful of the moment in Sioux Falls, a place not previously given to national acclaim in matters of the arts.

“Music directors generally come in with a bag of tricks and need to move on within 10 years or so,” said Gier, who was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2020.

“But there are exceptions to that rule, and I like to think of myself in that category, where the ensemble and the conductor grow together. I think that’s certainly been the case. I’m a much better conductor now than I was 20 years ago, and the orchestra is much better. Nobody wants it to end now, and nobody foresees that.”

Jennifer Teisinger, the symphony’s executive director, arrived in February 2019 and is still sorting through the benefits of the New Yorker article and $2 million donation. She’s more to the point when speaking of Gier’s future.

“We have not talked about him leaving,” Teisinger said. “We have only talked about him staying.”


— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at

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