Final movement: Retiring violinist reflects on 7 decades with Utah Symphony

Published: Monday, May 28 2012 11:00 a.m. MDT

Frances Darger rehearses with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, May 15, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Last fall, British cultural writer and commentator Norman LeBrecht and his blog readers compiled a list of the longest-tenured orchestra musicians worldwide.

There was a timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera who had been playing for 65 years and a bass player who’d been with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 66 years. But none had served as long as Frances Darger, who’s retiring this summer from her place in the violin section of the Utah Symphony after 69 years of service.

Darger, 87, was born into music. Her mother, Edna Evans Johnson, was a singer who made sure her five daughters sang and played instruments.

When Frances was 9 years old, her mom struck a deal with a friend, violinist Melba Lindsay Burton, and traded voice lessons for violin lessons.

“I’m not sure the Burton children ever learned how to sing, but I learned how to play the violin,” Darger said.

In 1942, men headed off to war, leaving jobs to be filled, including positions with the Utah Symphony.

Darger, then 17, auditioned for and won a position with the fledgling organization.

“Oh yes, I was thrilled. I was thrilled,” she said.

Darger played her first concert on Aug. 25 of that year at the University of Utah Stadium. The “Salute to the Men in the Armed Forces” was a program of pops pieces from the "1812 Overture" to “Turkey in the Straw.”

The symphony was then a part-time community orchestra with an 18-week season. Darger says she was paid $6.25 a performance or rehearsal.

“It was a struggling orchestra,” said violinist Elizabeth Burton, daughter of Melba Lindsay Burton. “They (musicians) were on the streets trying to sell tickets.”

The tough economic times didn't dampen Darger's dreams, however, as she left the symphony two years later for Hollywood. She and her four sisters wanted to take a shot at becoming the next Andrews Sisters-style singing group.

The Johnson Sisters, living in a one-bedroom apartment, got a few gigs singing swing on radio shows, a date playing the Hollywood Canteen and a letter of thanks from Canteen president and movie star Bette Davis.

“Mother and daddy were short of hysterical that their five daughters were down trying to make their fame and fortune,” Darger said. “They said it’s time you come home and finish your education.”

So Darger returned home and took her place again in the orchestra. Upon graduation from the University of Utah with a degree in English, she got another job in the society department of the now-defunct Salt Lake Telegram newspaper.

One day her editors assigned her to write a review of a symphony concert — a concert in which she was playing.

“So I called up my mother and said, 'How was the concert?'” she said, and submitted her mother’s critique — a glowing report.

The Utah Symphony, though, was still struggling financially and the organization’s board was looking for someone to build it into a full-time professional orchestra.

They found Maurice Abravanel.

Darger says the first time she saw the esteemed conductor might have been the day she covered the announcement of the appointment for the Telegram.

“And, of course, being a great little girl from Salt Lake, I was fascinated to see this world-class man come in with this big, fat cigar,” she recalled.

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