How I Got Here

Lessons on Life, In My Own Words

The Beat Goes On

By Joseph Giunta as told to dsm editor Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Joseph Giunta, music director of the Des Moines Symphony, is celebrating his 30th season with the orchestra. Over the years, he has significantly expanded the orchestra’s programming, reach and impact, including establishing Yankee Doodle Pops in 1994, a free concert that draws more than 100,000 people each July; the Symphony Academy in 2003, which now serves more than 600 families; and four youth symphonies. He’s commissioned 23 works, including 2012’s “Symphony in Sculpture” by composer Steven Heitzeg.

Nationally recognized for his depth of musical knowledge and innovative programming, Giunta also has guest conducted for major orchestras throughout the United States, such as the Chicago Symphony, as well as for orchestras in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Venezuela, Canada, Japan, China and the United Kingdom, including the London Philharmonic.

The New Jersey native has two children—Jared, a mixologist at Proof restaurant, and Alexis, who lives near Cedar Rapids—and two granddaughters. He’s married to opera singer and teacher Carrie Ellen Giunta. In an interview condensed for publication, he reflects on the value of strong leadership, the power of music, and his family’s 46-year secret.

Follow Your Heart
I grew up in Cross Keys, New Jersey, right outside of Philadelphia. Both parents came from big Italian families, so even though I was an only child, I never felt lonely. There was a revolving door of relatives coming in and out of the house.

It was a wonderful place to grow up—10 acres of farmland about 60 miles from the ocean and an hour from the Pocono Mountains and New York City. A couple of times a year we’d take the train to New York for Christmas shopping at Macy’s or to attend a Broadway show—and lunch always at Sardi’s.

I could not have had two more supportive or proud parents. They emphasized the importance of education and encouraged me to follow my heart, including my love of music. I remember sitting in front of a small black-and-white television watching Leonard Bernstein’s young people’s concerts. Then when I was 10, my parents took me to see the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember the program vividly—it was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It’s about Beethoven’s experiences with nature. Even though I was only 10, it changed the way I thought about water, trees and the outdoors.

By age 14, I knew I wanted to be a conductor. The trigger was a Philadelphia Orchestra performance conducted by Eugene Ormandy. There was no question that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t know why that happened, but I remember feeling overwhelming joy. I couldn’t stop talking about it—I told my aunts, uncles and cousins all about the experience.

A few years later, I started attending the Curtis Institute of Music and was trained by some wonderful teachers who were terrific nurturers. They’d put their arm around me and say, “What are we going to work on today? What questions do you have?”

After high school, I went to Juilliard in New York, but I was only there for 10 weeks. Juilliard was and is one of the world’s greatest music schools, but it wasn’t a good fit for me. I wasn’t prepared for the competitiveness and for what I call the dark side of our business—the part that can demean people, the part that says you’ll never be good enough. If that had happened today, I could have figured all that out. But at that time I was a bit vulnerable.

Recognize and Take Advantage of Opportunities
I went back home and then a variety of things happened that set me on my path. My high school band director was in charge of the New Jersey all-state orchestra and asked me to conduct a 20-minute program, even though I was just 18. 

During a rehearsal, a man listening at the back of the auditorium came up to me and said, “What are you doing here?” I told him a bit of my story, and he said, “My name is John Paynter, the director of bands at Northwestern University. I want you to come to school there. I’ve been looking for somebody with your kind of talent and energy.” Northwestern wanted to start a conducting program; at that time, there were only two conducting programs in the country.

The next thing I knew, I’m off to Chicago, having never seen the campus or the city. As a freshman—again through a series of circumstances—I wound up auditioning for George Solti, who had just been named the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He went on to become one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. He liked my work and said, “Joey”—he liked to call me Joey—“I want you to have access to all rehearsals, not just with me, but with every guest conductor who comes to town. We want to give you every opportunity to succeed.” So as a student, I had access to many of the world’s greatest conductors.

After I graduated Northwestern with a master’s in conducting, I got my first job as the music director with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I was 23, and a year later I got a call from Chicago Symphony general manager John Edwards and he said, “Maestro Solti would like to invite you to conduct 16 youth concerts next season for the Chicago Symphony. Would you be willing to do it?”

Even though it was my lifelong dream to conduct the Chicago Symphony, my answer was, “Can I think about it overnight?” He said, “If you have to think about it, I’m going to go on to the next person.” So I said, “I’ll do it.” It was one of the great experiences in my life and really launched my career. 

Listen To and Empower Others
I was 25 years old then and I didn’t know much of anything. But I think the thing I had going for me was the fact that I was a good listener. From studying music for 10 years, I had learned that the more you listen, the more you learn.

In retrospect, I think that’s where I started to develop a sense of leadership. What I learned from the major conductors that I had observed was that none of them ever told anybody what to do. They encouraged, they nurtured, they empowered the Chicago Symphony and other ensembles to play as one. It was all about the music, not about the person on the podium. I learned that back in my 20s and it has been a lifelong mantra of mine.

As I matured, I studied a lot about leadership and tried different approaches, but the one that I try to practice is to surround myself with the best people I can and to create an environment of positivity and optimism. You have high expectations, but you value people’s opinions and give them the freedom to express themselves. I try to encourage people to do their best. 

As all those orchestra members look at you, you want them to feel like they’re a big part of a bigger situation and purpose. 

In my view, that’s what makes a great conductor and a persuasive leader. In that kind of environment, you can begin to mold the music, like a piece of clay, as close to the composer’s intentions as you can. And that is really what this art form is all about. When I’m studying a piece of music, my mind gets into the composer’s mind. I try to think like Beethoven thought. What inspired him? Why did he choose this melody? Those important questions need to be answered in order to come up with an interpretation that will be successful. Even people who don’t know much about music can feel when a performance is as Beethoven would have wanted it.

Great art always changes. For example, every time I conduct a Tchaikovsky symphony that was written in the 1880s, I bring something different to it and it brings something different to me. Somebody once asked me if my interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has changed in
40 years. Of course it has. I’ve changed. Orchestras have changed. Our concert halls have changed, and our public has changed in those 40 years. All that affects how you interpret a current performance of an old piece.

I moved from Cedar Falls to Des Moines in 1989. I had been traveling all over the world as a guest conductor, which was exciting and fun and built my career pretty quickly.

But in my mid-30s, so much travel was getting tiring. I missed many family obligations, so I started looking for a place where I could put down roots. My manager and I looked at about a half-dozen opportunities, including a few on the East Coast and in Europe, but Des Moines seemed like a good fit. It was poised for growth and the orchestra’s energy was contagious.

Be True to Yourself
When I was 46, I found out my entire family knew something that I didn’t—that I was adopted. I was three weeks old when I was adopted through a Catholic orphanage in New Jersey. It was arranged by a retired Navy doctor who was a good friend of my dad’s.

The story goes that my parents invited all our family to our house and my father announced that no one would ever reveal that I was adopted until he told me, and his wishes were carried out.

When my mother and I were getting ready to visit him in the hospital for the last time, she sat down at our kitchen table and started crying. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “I just want you to know that you’re adopted.”

I said, “OK. Who cares? Let’s go.”

After my dad died, my mother and her three sisters couldn’t stop talking about it; they wanted me to find out who my biological parents were. But I wasn’t interested. I thought, “Why would I do that?” And I couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. 

The only regret I have is that I was never able to have a conversation about it with my father and say, “Hey, Pop, it’s all OK. I love you. You’re my dad.”

Knowing I was adopted helped calm the restlessness I’ve always felt about my family. Only a few of my relatives attended college and none were interested in classical music. 

I just knew I was different, and some of that wondering was put to rest. 

Strive for Continuous Improvement
I’ve never been someone who can do the same thing over and over. I’ve never been satisfied with what I’m doing today. I always try to improve.

I love to take risks—like when we started our Beyond the Score presentations in 2010 or when I invited a flamenco dance company to Des Moines last season. This season, we are performing a piece about immigration by American composer Peter Boyer called “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.” It is an important project for our orchestra and for our community.

These projects keep me excited about my work and they continue to breathe wonderful life into the orchestra. I believe that orchestras that continue to be innovative and think about new ways of producing symphonic performances will have a vibrant future. The ones that are stuck in the last century will have trouble.

I think of the Des Moines Symphony as an art gallery with constant change rather than a museum where artifacts are dusted off but never moved. The symphony is a living, exciting, forward-thinking organization and is the offspring of our city’s personality.

This is the best time to be the music director, not only because of the orchestra’s growth but because we’re really just beginning to see how important and essential the art form is. There are no words to describe the feeling I get when I see children from all different cultures and economic backgrounds come together to play a movement of a Beethoven symphony and realize that they’ve performed something extraordinary. I have witnessed people with various stages of dementia remember a certain time and place when listening to classical music. People who suffer from depression feel better when listening to the music of Bach, Mozart or other great composers. And there is no subject taught in our schools that teaches listening skills better than music.

I’ve had the privilege of bringing joy to hundreds of thousands of people through the Des Moines Symphony, and I’m grateful to continue to follow my lifelong dream.