It's just been a wonderful, wonderful ride. —Frances Darger, violinist, Utah Symphony
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.
Abravanel transformed the orchestra into a world-renowned ensemble. He secured recording contracts, booked international tours and lobbied for what would eventually become Abravanel Hall.
“He brought in soloists to die for. He did programs to die for. It was a thrilling experience,” she said.
The walls of Darger’s basement walls are adorned with dolls from around the world — South America, Germany, Norway — mementos of her travels with Abravanel and the symphony.
Leafing through scrapbooks, she beams while talking about their performance during the first tour at the base of the Acropolis in Athens in 1966.
“That whole tour, you were just kind of in a dream world.”
It was also on that tour when her violin was run over by a bus on the tarmac of the Stuttgart, Germany, airport. The violin was destroyed.
Luckily, violin maker Peter Prier was with the group and had a spare instrument, which Darger bought from Prier.
She recalls the time she broke her arm skiing and returned home to an answering machine message from the conductor.
“Frances,” she mimics with an Abravanel European accent. "We don’t go skiing, we don’t get pregnant, we don’t take sick leave. Why did you go skiing?”
Darger did get married and got pregnant, but she kept her job and kept on playing. Conductors and musicians came and went, but Darger stayed on for one simple reason — the music.
“I just loved it. I loved it. I loved all that pretty music,” she said. “It’s more fun to play it than to just sit in the audience.”
This season, five other symphony members — string players Jack Ashton, Carolee Baron, Don Kramer and Lois Swint, and trumpeter Edward Gornik — have retired or will retire. Each has decades of service, but none has performed quite as long as Frances Darger, who played her last regular season concert May 26 and officially retires after the Deer Valley Music Festival this summer.
“It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful ride, so to speak,” she said.