Kirk Gustafson marks 25 years with Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra
The beard is gone. The tight, dark turtleneck is out, too. But one thing from Kirk Gustafson’s 1987 professional photo seems the same today: the eyes.
For the past 25 years, Gustafson has led the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra as conductor in the same focused, yet calming, manner as the facial expression he wore in his first, official symphony portrait, said several local musicians who were part of the symphony when Gustafson arrived.
“He was the right guy when we got him, and he’s maintained his artistic ability and grown with the orchestra,” said violinist Norm Ashley.
Among the traits Gustafson possesses that musicians respect are his communication skills and musical knowledge, added long-time horn players Diana Musselman and Jack Nisley, who, along with Ashley, were members of the symphony when Gustafson was hired.
“You can say something that’s a criticism in a polite way,” said Gustafson, 58. “That’s my job.”
The specific details of Gustafson’s hire and first shows are now a bit fuzzy for many of those who were involved in the process, but Gustafson does remember he wasn’t initially hired when the position opened.
It was only when the previous conductor left following the 1986 season — his only season with the local symphony — that the symphony decided to hire a conductor more interested in calling Grand Junction home than using the job as a stepping stone, said Nisley, a member of the search committee when Gustafson was hired.
An job offer was extended to Gustafson in 1987, and he immediately moved from Denver to Grand Junction. He came for musical opportunities withe symphony, but also for the chance to teach at then-Mesa State College — “I like to teach.” he said — and take part in all the area’s outdoor recreation.
“When Kirk came, I felt like he was committed to being here and that was a comfortable feeling,” Musselman said.
Gustafson never harbored ill-feelings toward symphony members for not selecting him when they had the initial opportunity, he said. Instead, he was thankful to be a conductor regardless of how it happened.
“A lot of conductors will get a job and constantly look for the next rung up: an orchestra with a bigger budget, more professional players,” Gustafson said. “My interest was always in building an orchestra. To me, it’s very rewarding to watch this orchestra (grow).”
Under Gustafson’s directorship, the symphony’s budget has quadrupled, the number of musicians has increased, and the technical ability of the players has improved, Gustafson said.
As music director, Gustafson selects the music for each show, leads rehearsals and conducts concerts.
It’s a full-time, administrative position, and his contract expires in four years. At that time, retirement is an option, he said, and the opening here likely will draw “300 or so” applicants because “conducting positions are very, very competitive.”
If, and when, Gustafson does decide to retire, he likely won’t leave Grand Junction because, just as he anticipated when he was hired as a 32-year-old, he has immersed himself in a life outside the symphony.
He officiates high school soccer games and, over the years, has officiated soccer games at all levels from semi-professional to youth soccer. His three boys all played soccer so he decided to officiate instead of coach because he was going to be there anyway.
He also hunts, fishes and rides horses. He even has his pilot’s license.
His desire to live in Grand Junction and lead the symphony isn’t lost on the musicians who have been with him every step of the way.
“It’s very unique to find a person who’s that strong musically to take us from where we were to where we are now and still fit into our small community,” Musselman said.