on the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra’s 40th anniversary.


During its 40th season, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra performs masterworks, including Holst’s The Planets, Handel’s Messiah, and Beethoven’s Ninth, as well as recent works from talents such as twentysomething composer, educator, and nonprofit director Gala Flagello, whose compositions audiences have likely never heard. Founded in 1984 by Greg Heltman, who helmed it for 37 years, the symphony plays both contemporary and classical compositions and, increasingly, work by composers from traditionally underrepresented groups. Executive Director Emma Scherer points out that the Santa Fe Symphony is one of only half a dozen orchestras in the country with its model of governance: musicians occupy 25 percent of the seats on the voting board and, in conjunction with the musical director and the choral director, are responsible for the artistic leadership of the organization.

Here Scherer, musical director Guillermo Figueroa, and second violinist Gloria Velasco reflect on the triumphs and challenges of the first 40 years, with an eye toward the future.

How long have you been with the symphony?

Gloria Velasco: Well, I precede it by a few years. In 1976, a conductor I’d played for wanted to start an orchestra in Santa Fe, which had never been done. There was nothing [to ensure] there would be even an audience. He asked some of us, including myself and my husband at the time, and built an orchestra basically overnight. At first we were well funded, but it crumbed over a labor dispute in ’83. One contingent went one way to form what became Pro Musica, and we blue-collar workers went with Greg Heltman and his colleague Stewart Robertson, who was our conductor. We started from the ashes, without a funding base or steady audiences. But even then, I remember sharing a common goal. We weren’t just there to play our part. We were there to make sure everything was right. I mean, we were scrambling to find rehearsal space. But we did whatever we needed to do to make it happen.

How is the symphony unique?

Guillermo Figueroa: I’ve never worked anywhere like it as far as the input the musicians have. It’s very good and it’s also frustrating — some of the meetings we end up going in circles. But every aspect of a decision is examined and discussed. Even if it’s a bad decision, everybody bought into it. The musicians feel invested in the orchestra.

Founded in 1984 by Greg Heltman, who helmed it for 37 years, the symphony plays both contemporary and classical compositions and, increasingly, work by composers from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Aside from special guests, your member musicians all live in New Mexico, in contrast to some of the other musical organizations in town. Why is that important?

Figueroa: You’re never a prophet in your own land — I’m from Puerto Rico, and I’ve experienced that a bit here too. Often, the accomplishments made [by locals] are downplayed. Other organizations pride themselves on bringing in international stars, but they’re selling a different product. We’re here all year — let them have their summer.

Emma Scherer: In order for New Mexico to have thriving arts and culture, we have to [support] working musicians. [That way] local musicians become familiar faces and part of the creative economy.

Figueroa: Santa Fe is a retirement destination [that attracts] a lot of wealth, often from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or Boston, people that go to the symphonies there. I get it; I lived in New York for 32 years. If I moved here and didn’t know anything about Santa Fe, I would never expect an orchestra of this quality. I hear that so much.

How do you make your programming decisions? What does your audience look like?

Velasco: [Early on] we were riding the crest of newness. Now we’re more mindful of what the community needs and wants. There’s a large contingent that would just as soon come hear a Beethoven symphony every single concert, but we wouldn’t be doing a service if we relied only on those standards.

Figueroa: There’s a deserving and overdue emphasis on believing that good music is not only written by white males. The programming committee brought in pieces and composers I had no idea existed. We made that a tenet of the program without abandoning the more traditional. The building blocks of an orchestra are Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Many considerations go into programming: [distribution of] work; a judicious mix of new and old; good representation of minority composers. It’s a hell of a process. Scherer: Like most symphonies, our audience skews older, which isn’t a bad thing as long as you’re also recruiting younger people. We’ve branched out venue-wise: a concert at Meow Wolf last year was packed to the gills, oversold by 15 percent. Our programs include free concerts at the Cathedral Basilica and the Southside Farmers Market, the eight northern pueblos, the Southside Library, and in Santa Fe Public Schools. Most of our musicians are of working age and have young families.

What was the pandemic like?

Scherer: We conceived of a virtual season of eight concerts and paid our musicians [via] special fundraising. There was a lot of brainstorming. We performed at Ghost Ranch, Meow Wolf, the School for Advanced Research, and on the roofs of Thornburg and the Lensic. Recording virtual concerts gave people hope for live music. Figueroa: The pandemic was the proudest moment of this orchestra because of the way everybody responded. The spirit created during that time was extraordinary. Velasco: It tested our creativity and how invested we were, because there’s nothing more deflating than playing this amazing piece in your living room, uploading it, then going down the hallway and washing dishes. We’re used to the rush, where you can’t go to bed after a concert. But then I saw the end product and was like, holy cow. It gave us all a chance to see the music in a different light.

What does the future look like?

Scherer: Although there’s no crystal ball that tells us what the symphony will look like in 40 years, I do know that our creative momentum is strong: we’re attracting younger audiences, giving back to the community, and building a great organization with and for our musicians. In 40 years, I want every Santa Fean and in fact every New Mexican to know the symphony and take pride in it. And I want them to know that they are welcomed and wanted in the larger musical community of Santa Fe.






Santa Fe New Mexican