Now in his 30th season with the Des Moines Symphony, Jonathan Sturm is its longest serving concertmaster. Despite his long career he still loves the passion and precision this kind of work requires, as well as contributing to the great performances experienced by audiences in this growing city.
When Jonathan was just two years old, he remembers his mother taking violin lessons. Even at that young age, he was interested in trying out the feel of the instrument under his chin and scraping away at the strings. At the age of seven he began his own journey with music and the violin, and has been playing ever since.
When Jonathan was eight years old, he experienced his first professional orchestra concert; a memorable experience as Isaac Stern performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony. His father took him backstage at intermission, and the master violinist said, “I have only one question to ask you, young man: Do you like to play the violin?” Jonathan nodded, and the master violinist responded, “That is all that matters.” He was right.
As Concertmaster, Jonathan has many behind-the-scenes responsibilities, principal of which is to begin the process of bowing the music so that phrasing and articulations reflect composer’s intentions and to ensure that the violin section looks and sounds more coordinated. “Bowing” means to determine which direction a player should pull their bow when playing a particular note, as well as any stylistic notations. You may recognize the Concertmaster as the musician arriving “late” to the stage to tune the orchestra; historically, the Concertmaster was the conductor for early orchestral performances and would lead from the first chair. The Concertmaster still arrives and bows as a representative of the orchestra before welcoming the Conductor or Music Director as a sign of the upcoming collaboration between the orchestra and Conductor to interpret the evening’s program.
Jonathan says, “The most fulfilling aspect of serving as Concertmaster must be hearing the full orchestra, and my section in particular, create a compelling performance. When everything clicks and all are playing our hearts out, it is a glorious thing of which to be a part. A recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings brought me that kind of pride in all of the DMSO strings. It was top class!”
Jonathan has many wonderful memories of playing with the Des Moines Symphony, but a few standouts include performances with Yo Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Itzhak Perlman, Earl Wild, Emanuel Ax, and Ray Charles. “Some other fun moments have happened when I got to dance onstage with Duke Ellington’s granddaughter and got kissed onstage by Kristen Chenoweth. My chair does have a few unwritten benefits!”
Jonathan typically begins working on pieces as soon as he receives them from the Music Librarian – sometimes months in advance of a concert. For those that he has played many times before, he typically begins about 3 weeks in advance. While the pandemic has kept him at home more than usual, he’s had the opportunity to practice much more – he teaches music history and private violin lessons at Iowa State University and has served as the President of the faculty senate.
Outside of music, Jonathan loves wine tasting. “There is so much variety between grapes, growing regions, producers, and vintages! It is like a symphony in a glass. Perhaps in retirement I will work in a wine shop.” When he’s not practicing violin, he also spends time trying to improve his golf game and even better if he gets to travel while doing so (though of course that has curtailed this year). He also periodically scuba dives and loves being in nature – hiking, biking, and canoeing. During quarantine, he has made a little extra time to try doing crossword puzzles and, if they’re not too hard, he quite enjoys them.
“It has been the joy of a lifetime to perform with the Des Moines Symphony for 30 seasons, to have made some wonderful friends, met many outstanding musicians, performed the best orchestral music that history has to offer, welcomed several of my talented students into the orchestra, and met my wife there, too. And though the audience must necessarily have some different members in it today than it did when I arrived in 1991, yet you and they are fundamentally the same—you love the sound of great art and love the experience of watching people work hard to realize the best version we can of the elusive, challenging, strenuous, yet perpetually delicious masterpieces that history has left to us all to enjoy.”
Jonathan Sturm is featured in our January Live from the Temple concert Dance, Rhythm, & Blues.