When Joseph Giunta came to the Des Moines Symphony in 1989, he wanted to take the symphony out to the public and expose people to music. The symphony performed at Living History Farms with Popcorn Pops in front of a crowd of 5,000 fans who listened to the free concert back in April 1989.
“At the time, that was the largest crowd we ever played for,” the musical director and conductor for the Des Moines Symphony said.
But he had grander plans — a patriotic concert for the public, performed outside the walls of the Des Moines Civic Center. Yankee Doodle Pops, now in its 28th year, was born in 1994. “You’ve got to get these orchestras out of their buildings and into communities,” Giunta said, highlighting his philosophy.
This year marks the return of Yankee Doodle Pops to the Capitol steps. The show went on hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic. Last year, the symphony recorded a version of the show for television even as live performances returned to the Civic Center with social distancing protocols in place.
"This music was written for people to hear," Giunta said. "That audience gives us that added incentive to do our best. We get energy from the public. There’s nothing that can take the place of a live performance."
When Giunta took over the symphony after spending 14 seasons conducting the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony, Des Moines was a very different place.
“You sort of have to go back in time. Thirty years ago, Des Moines was not the city it is today,” Giunta said. People would drive downtown to work and then go home, and the city didn't offer the activities and restaurants that would keep people in the center core.
In the ’90s, that started to change for downtown Des Moines. More people started living in the central part of the city. Restaurants opened. People lived closer to where they worked in downtown businesses. And with that, the symphony’s reach grew.
“I believe so strongly that the orchestra has to be a part of the fabric of the community. The orchestra was an important first step to bringing people back downtown,” Giunta said, emphasizing the 72-member symphony's role in the city.
Twenty-eight years ago, the symphony started performing Yankee Doodle Pops on the Iowa State Capitol steps, facing downtown. “We performed to 20,000 people. That many didn’t pay to hear the symphony at the Civic Center,” he said.
The audience grew. Now in his 33rd year at the helm of the symphony, Giunta expects 100,000 to attend the July 1 concert on the State Capitol grounds in what the organization calls the largest single-day concert in Iowa. The patriotic show concludes with a stunning fireworks display over the downtown Des Moines skyline. And best of all, it’s free.
Turner Center Jazz Orchestra featuring the Des Moines Symphony Academy’s new jazz orchestra kicks off the night at 6:30 p.m., but people start arriving much earlier in the day.
Giunta recalled doing an interview at 6 a.m. one year on the Capitol grounds and watching a couple toting their beach chairs and a cooler to stake out a location. "This is our family reunion," they told him. People bring picnic baskets, blankets and lawn chairs, and can purchase food from vendors at the concert.
“I know the music we play isn’t meant for everyone,” Giunta said. “(Yankee Doodle Pops) is not just classical. Yankee Doodle Pops was a very important message that the orchestra was for everyone.”
At 8:30 p.m., the Des Moines Symphony takes the stage, playing a 68-minute performance that includes songs such as “Sir Duke” from Stevie Wonder and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” from James Brown, mixed with classics such as Edwin Eugene Bagley’s “National Emblem March,” Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Actor and singer Matthew Johnson performs two sets, including songs such as “America the Beautiful” and other favorites, with the symphony.
Inviting a guest singer started 28 years ago when Iowa native and opera singer Simon Estes performed at the first Yankee Doodle Pops. He's gone on to join the symphony at least 10 times over the years.
Other notable performers at Yankee Doodle Pops in the past include Jason Robert Brown, probably best known to Iowans for his musical adaptation of "The Bridges of Madison County," and composer Peter Boyer, whose song “Fanfare for Tomorrow” is part of the 2022 lineup.
Guest artist Billy Weathers, a local hip-hop singer, joins the symphony as well. The Oh Say, Can You Sing? winner, selected before the concert through tryouts, performs “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
"This is one of the great institutions of the state," Giunta said. "Maybe people assume that it will be there all the time, but when it was taken away, there was a void."
For those who can't make the show, Iowa PBS and Iowa Public Radio will broadcast the event live.
The musicians who play everything from piccolos and tubas to violins and harp are ready to greet a live audience once again. "When I give that down beat on July 1, it’s going to be pretty special for people who are there."
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: DM Symphony's Yankee Doodle Pops returns to State Capitol on July 1