Making music in West Valley CityDec 04, 2022 11:46AM ● By Darrell Kirby
By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]
They come from different backgrounds and life experiences.
Some are teachers, others are active-duty military. There’s a music teacher and a high school student. Stay-at-home moms and retirees are also part of the mix.
The one thing they have in common? Every one of them plays a musical instrument, loves playing it, and is part of the West Valley Symphony.
Surprised West Valley City has a symphony orchestra? You’re not alone. It’s been around since 1991, but not everyone knows about it.
The West Valley Symphony is an all-volunteer group numbering about 75 musicians of varying levels of ability and experience. But this medley of music makers from all walks of life is good enough to put on several public concerts a year, including three holiday performances in December, two of which are free. More on that later.
Sterling Poulson is chairman of the symphony’s board of directors.
“We’re not the Utah Symphony, but we don’t really want to be the Utah Symphony,” he said of the professional orchestra with paid, unionized musicians. “It’s (West Valley Symphony) a great place for people to develop their skills.”
His love of music and choral arts spans a good part of his life and eventually led him to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in music at the University of Utah, the latter degree coming just a couple of years ago. He is also founder and music director of the Choral Arts Society of Utah where he conducts the 100-voice choir in several concerts each year. He fits all that around what he is probably best known for—chief meteorologist at KUTV Channel 2 for more than three decades.
Eric Kartchner has been the principal cellist in the symphony since 1997 and lately has helped with its sales and marketing efforts as a member of the board of directors. “I really enjoy the orchestra. It brings me a lot of joy,” he said. “It’s a wonderful outlet for the community.” Resting at his feet was his cello he affectionately calls “Jessabelle.” Kartchner’s time with the symphony puts him among the top five musicians in tenure with the group.
The rest of his time is spent giving private music lessons. “I think my musical switch never shuts off,” he said.
The symphony’s associate music director, membership chair, and one of its trumpeters is George Dye. “It’s a lot of fun deciding what the theme (of performances) is going to be, what is our current skill level, how much time do we have to push for growth in terms of skills,” he said.
“We get a lot of opportunities to play at different places.”
Donny Gilbert occupies the podium as the West Valley Symphony’s main conductor and music director. He, with help from Dye, arranges the music for the orchestra’s performances, right in line with his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music composition from the University of Utah.
“We’ve got professionals, and we’ve got gifted amateurs in this group,” Gilbert said. Since joining the symphony in its inception, Gilbert says the quality of its musicians has gotten much better over the years. “It has improved vastly. It’s been a lot of fun to witness that evolution.”
“The sound of this group is just intense now,” Gilbert added.
Still, he knows the West Valley Symphony is not on the same level as the better known Utah Symphony and must fill a different musical niche. “If you want to hear the classics, go hear them play and they’ll play it wonderfully. That’s not where our heart lies. We have to be a bit more on the popular side of music,” he said.
Being a volunteer symphony, the number of members fluctuates as people come and go for any number of reasons. Musicians are not committed to the symphony contractually or by any other means. “If someone’s going to stop coming, they’re going to stop coming,” Dye said. “For the most part, people keep coming back. They love it.”
In return for the Utah Cultural Celebration Center providing a place for the symphony to rehearse, the orchestra does a few concerts a year at the venue. Members also help with ushering and other needs for performances put on by West Valley Arts, the city’s nonprofit arts and cultural organization.
The symphony holds a day-long workshop for high school students in advance of its spring concert, in part to hopefully attract future members.
One high schooler who is already in the symphony is 17-year-old Zach Bean. He comes to the rehearsals every Wednesday night all the way from Tremonton with his parents and siblings who also play in the orchestra. He was introduced to it by his cello teacher, Kartchner. “It’s a way to be involved in the music community,” Zach said. He plans to pursue music education in college, possibly at BYU.
The West Valley Symphony was founded in 1991 by Ralph Baker. His son, Steve, conducted the orchestra for many years until he died in 2007. As Poulson recalled, “Steve and I had become pretty good friends. He said, ‘Sterling, if anything happens to me, would you make sure the orchestra keeps going?’”
“Steve, I will, but you’re in your 50s. You’re going to be fine,” Poulson told him.
Baker died two weeks later. Poulson incorporated the symphony in 2008. “We’ve been going ever since.”
Funding for the symphony comes from Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts & Parks (ZAP) tax and grants from foundations like the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation.
Although most performances are in West Valley City and Salt Lake County, the orchestra has played at events in Utah County, Ogden, and Logan.
The West Valley Symphony has three holiday concerts in December:
Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m. - KUTV Holiday Pops Concert (with the Choral Arts Society of Utah) benefiting the Salvation Army Angel Tree Program. Cottonwood High School. Admission $15. Tickets at eventbrite.com.
Dec. 12, 7 p.m. - WorldStage! Winter Concert Series. Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley City. Free admission.
Dec. 19, 7 p.m. - Christmas Carol Sing-Along. Vivint Arena, Salt Lake City. Free admission.
For more information, visit westvalleysymphonyutah.org.