I don’t mean to take anything away from the Northwest Iowa Symphony Orchestra. I’m always impressed with NISO’s variety of programs and consistent professionalism. But the opening moments at last Saturday’s South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s “A Gershwin Celebration” truly blew me away.

It wasn’t the first time Connie and I attended an SDSO concert. We’d made it to the organization’s Christmas program last year. But Saturday night, as the concert was about to begin, we experienced something new.

I am very familiar with the Washington Pavilion where the orchestra performs in Sioux Falls, SD. I attended high school in the building when it was still Washington High School and even took part in a couple of high school plays on the stage where the orchestra appeared.

But the auditorium isn’t physically the same as it was when I was growing up. The audience seating area has been greatly increased in size and the interior is more splendid with rich wood paneling, upholstered seats, beautiful new light fixtures and lush carpeting.

It was moments before performance time when Connie and I took our seats. The members of the orchestra were all on the stage, but many were still milling around talking with each other when we arrived. Many were still tuning their instruments, creating an overwhelming mix of notes and noise. Then it happened. The auditorium lights slowly dimmed, and the concert mistress appeared to assure that all played a uniform note. She’d hardly finished drawing her bow across her violin when SDSO’s music director, Delta David Gier, appeared and lifting his baton, without a word to the orchestra or audience, Gier led the musicians in a bold, rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The reaction was exciting and immediate. The entire audience jumped to their feet and without any encouragement joined in singing the heartfelt words.

Then, about the time we reached “what so proudly we hail” Connie told me to look to my left. There was an American flag, flooded by a single spotlight, proudly displayed on the edge of the first-floor balcony.

I can’t express the emotion I felt, looking at that flag, and hearing the music and the entire audience robustly singing. But the evening didn’t end there. Gier, the orchestra and bass-baritone soloist Kevin Das presented the best of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” To everyone’s credit they chose to use some of the lesser known selections, making the concert a time of discovery as well as fine entertainment. They later ended the evening with “An American in Paris.”

Gier, I learned, has been music director of the SDSO since 2004, Under his direction the organization has produced many unique outreach programs including The Lakota Music Project designed to help Native Americans grow in their understanding of traditional classical music as well as help American audiences become aware of the wonder and sounds of Native American music. SDSO also sponsors an annual scholarship contest for young musicians. This year the competition was won by 16-year-old Elizabeth Jerstad, who attends Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls. Jerstad, who has been playing the violin since she was 3, won by playing Symphonie espagnole, Op 21. Connie and I had the privilege of hearing Jerstad perform the piece with the SDSO orchestra during last Saturday’s concert.

Connie and I still are very much looking forward to future Northwest Iowa Symphony Orchestra concerts. We are fortunate to have such an excellent musical organization here in our four-county area.

But we’re also going to attempt to make as many SDSO presentations as possible this coming year. I am especially looking forward to tonight’s Rachmaninoff concert, then this winter’s season performances of Handel’s Messiah, a selection of Tchaikovsky compositions, Mozart’s Requiem Mass and

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony concerts, among others.

Peter W. Wagner lives in Sibley. He is the founder/publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW and may be reached at pww@iowainformation.com.