Culture Conversations: Music
Frances Darger: A Life in Music
Norman Lebrecht (one of the most widely-read commentators on music, culture and cultural politics) posed a question on his blog concerning the longest serving orchestral player in the country. Someone recently sent him an email noting that the bassoonist from Lake Placid Sinfonietta had hung up his instrument after playing with them since 1947. He was sure no one had or has been playing that long with one orchestra. A stream of comments came in, with one from George Brown, Utah Symphony’s Principal Timpani, saying this:
“Our esteemed colleague, Frances Darger, has been playing violin here since 1942, so counting a brief one year hiatus early in her career, Francis has been performing with the Utah Symphony for 68 years.”
Turns out Darger beat out everyone on Norman Lebrecht’s list. Well, for a week, and then someone found another crazy instrumentalist who started playing for a group when she was 15 and never gave up her day job.
Born and bred in Utah, Frances Johnson Darger auditioned for the Utah Symphony in 1942 when the men went off to war and it was time for women to step up and step in to the workforce. She was only 17 years old. Her first performance was on August 25, 1942, for a program titled, “A Salute to the Men in the Armed Forces of the United States!" "The Star Spangled Banner," Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue” were featured. She remembers being “just a kid,” but at that time the Symphony only had six concerts a year so hers was definitely a side job.
Nearly 70 years later, Darger has been through all the greats: Maurice Abravanel, Joseph Silverstein, Keith Lockhart and now Thierry Fischer. She says each was marvelous and did wonderful things for the Utah Symphony and the community. Abravanel built up the season little by little until the Symphony became a 52-week orchestra, making them one of only fifteen full-time orchestras in the country. While other orchestras have cut down their season during difficult times, Utah continues to perform every weekend in Abravanel Hall and plays for the Utah Opera in the Capitol Theatre.
“Joseph Silverstein was marvelous and was here for ten or fifteen years” she says, “and Keith had access to wonderful soloists and brought a lot of great musicians to Utah.” Thierry Fischer is still new but Darger says so far the most notable change he’s made is changing where the orchestra sits. If you are a regular audience member at the Symphony you may have noticed the violins have split up. “The second violins moved from the left to the right and he moved the cellos over by the first violins. I play second violin and I love it because I have more room over there,” Darger laughs.
Playing for the Symphony her entire life has been “a joy and a pleasure” she says. “I never wanted to be a violin performer, I just loved orchestra music. Being a soloist was never one of my ambitions. It’s not my thing.” However, her “thing” has always been music. And it was her mother’s thing too. “My mother was a singer and she wanted all her children to play. She sang with the Salt Lake Theatre a couple times, she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but then she got married and had five children.” Darger grew up in the era when musical families were an entertainment goldmine. Her mother actually chose the violin for her, as well as instruments for her other children. “My oldest sister was a wonderful pianist, my second sister was a cellist and the others sang. She would make us sing and play for all her friends,” Darger remembers, “and she was very much into the National Federation of Music Clubs. “
Fortunately, Darger didn’t have a rebellious bone in her body. She gladly took up the violin and ended up loving it. She began at Frank Asper’s youth symphony at the McCune Mansion, and that is where she fell in love with orchestral music. Auditioning for the Utah Symphony when she was still a child was just a natural course of events and an undying love for music is what has kept her there for all these years. She’s too diplomatic to name a favorite composer or work she’s performed, but she will say this, “I’m in love with all the Russian boys, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and Shostakovitch. Their music is just marvelous.”
Now what about that brief one year hiatus? What was that about? Did she quit to have a baby? No, Darger worked through the pregnancies of all three of her children. Her one year hiatus, although a break from the Symphony, was not a break from music.
In the 40s sister acts like the Andrews Sisters, the McGuire Sisters and the Clark Sisters, were all the rage. If you had a family of girls and you didn’t groom them to be singing sensations, you were simply wasting an opportunity. Darger had five sisters -- the Johnson Sisters. “My sisters and I thought it would be wonderful to be like the Andrews Sisters. My older sister’s husband was off at war so we decided it would be the perfect time to get together and give it a try. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in California so it was a little cramped. We stayed for a year and we made a few recordings. We were on the radio two or three times but it didn’t really work out. I think we looked awfully sweet” she laughed, “Too sweet.”
When a life in Hollywood didn’t materialize, Darger returned to Salt Lake and rejoined the Utah Symphony. Soon after she started her own family with her high school sweetheart, and much like her mother, she made sure music was a part of her children’s lives. Her three children each took up an instrument. The oldest played the viola, the next played the violin and her son played the piano. Her husband Bob, on the other hand, didn’t have any kind of musical inclinations. “He was a manufacturer’s agent in the lighting industry and was very unmusical.” Darger explains, “When he first started going to Symphony concerts his mother would scold him for bringing magazines.” But he was as supportive as a husband could be. He watched the children when she had rehearsals and played in the evening. And when the children were grown he didn’t miss one concert.
Being married to a musician isn’t a bad gig – especially if you get to tag along on the tours. Darger’s first trip in 1966 took her to Greece, Germany and England. It has remained her favorite. She loves to travel and has taken trips whenever she can. She took her kids on tour with her around Utah and her husband has accompanied her on some of the bigger trips abroad. If you want to get a sense of the extent of her travels, all you need do is walk into Darger’s basement and see her doll collection. Dolls from all over the world line her walls inside shadow boxes, along shelves, and on tables. She explains, “I just think they’re all so fun and fascinating. I love their faces. And it’s fun to remind you of where you’ve been.”
At 87, Darger has no plans for retirement. She thoroughly enjoys what she does and although an extensive music career like hers brings a lot of repetition, there is always new music and more changes afoot. “It’s amazing. I keep thinking I’ve played everything but new stuff keeps coming in.”
Darger can’t seem to get enough of music. When she’s not a performer, she’s an audience member. For many Utah Symphony players (herself included), side jobs are quite common, so Darger regularly attends concerts and performances around town. “If I can I like to go and support my compatriots in their personal pursuits.” In fact, Darger is affectionately known as the “den mother” at the Symphony. She dotes on the other players and dishes out advice. She is delightful to talk to and maintains a quick sense of humor. On tour, the orchestra members have learned if they want to know where the action is, they follow Frances. She is a seasoned traveler and has excellent instincts.
When asked how she has managed to live such a charmed life she says, “I’ve just been very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.” She doesn’t remember her audition, but she claims the way things have changed she may not have had the same opportunity had she auditioned today. Auditions are open to a large national pool of highly qualified applicants. In fact, Darger is one of very few Utah Symphony players left that are actually from Utah. “Last week we had flute auditions and 60 people came in. And then we had clarinet auditions. I asked how many people came to audition and they said 54. I thought, ‘Oh, how do people do it?’” She may admire the ambition and gusto of today’s young musicians, but longevity and loyalty are also hard to come by -- especially these days. Fellow violinist David Porter observes, “She's never late, never complains, is sharp as a tack, and seems to know someone in every town in Utah.” Senior service in orchestras is actually quite unique. Many orchestras (mostly in Continental Europe) have term limits or other limitations set by social legislation. But here, the Symphony has a deep respect for their roots and the players who have been through it all.
Next time you attend a Utah Symphony concert, you can easily spot Frances Darger. In fact, you may have already noticed her; she’s the distinguished violinist with the unmistakably glowing white hair, surrounded by her best friends and living the dream.
Arc of Light
A new film on Anna Campbell Bliss at UMOCA
Some countries experience a brain drain. In the U.S. it's more a brain redistribution. States like Utah lose their smartest children to the pull of either coast. But through our colleges (and sometimes our slopes), we adopt bright minds reared elsewhere. It was a chairmanship at the University of Utah's architecture department that brought Robert Bliss, a student of Black Mountain College and MIT, to the Rocky Mountains. His wife, Anna Campbell Bliss, a student of Gyorgy Kepes and Wellesley graduate (who later studied at Harvard and MIT), came along, and together the pair brought the genes of the Bauhaus and modernism to Utah.
Anna, who trained and worked as an architect but eventually became best known for her artistic work, is the subject of a new documentary premiering this week at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Directed by Cid Collins Walker, a Utah native who now lives in the D.C. area, Arc of Light examines the artist's biography and artistic pursuits, from her early studies of modernism in the Ivy League to large-scale artistic commissions here in Utah.
A spoiler alert: No, I won't ruin a surprise ending (that would be Bliss's battle with blindness, but the film's promo materials make no secret about it). Rather, I must warn you not to judge the film by its first five minutes. The narration is by itself acceptable, if only barely (it feels too excited and breathy for the measured pacing of the film's commentary and visuals). Combined in those first five minutes with a score full of tinkling pianos and fluttery woodwinds that seems wholly inappropriate for the story of an interdisciplinary pioneer in the fields of art and technology, it is enough to scare off even an enthusiastic viewer. It did the first writer to whom I offered the DVD for review.
Thankfully, whenever possible Walker lets Bliss and the film's other subjects do the talking, and as the narrative arc moves from biography to artistic commentary the narration and score fade in importance. In addition to footage of Anna and Robert Bliss, Walker includes commentary by Ric Collier, former director of the Salt Lake Art Center, and Stanley and Judy Hallett, friends and colleagues of the artist who live and work in the D.C. area. Regrettably, more was not done with friends and colleagues in Utah who have known the artist and watched her work for the past fifty years.
During that span Bliss has been the recipient of some of the most prestigious public art commissions in Utah. Her multi-disciplinary interests and experiments with technology have made her a natural fit for projects like Extended Vision, now a permanent installation at the Cowles Mathematics building at the University of Utah, and Windows, at the Utah State Capitol. The film is an insightful examination of the inventive artistic mind that created those works, and a study in the migration of ideas, from Weimer to Salt Lake City.