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At 17, when violinist Frances Darger began playing with the orchestra that was to become known as the Utah Symphony, World War II had just begun. Men were heading off to war, and opportunities were opening up for women. Frances then Johnson was a talented violinist and singer, trained at Salt Lake City's McCune School of Music. She grasped her chance.
Darger, now 87, will retire from the Utah Symphony after the final concert of this season. She has been playing with the orchestra for 70 years excepting one year in which she and her sisters moved to California to try their luck at fame à la the Andrews Sisters.
The Johnson Sisters didn't catch on. Frances returned to Utah, resumed playing in the orchestra and raised a family with husband Bob Darger, her childhood sweetheart.
She remembers the days when the Utah Symphony was a part-time orchestra with evening rehearsals that allowed players to have day jobs. That ended during music director Maurice Abravanel's tenure, which also saw the orchestra rise to worldwide prominence. Darger remembers the Utah Symphony's first international tour, which included a memorable performance in Athens.
"It was so unbelievable for our orchestra to do that to sit at the base of the Acropolis and play all that wonderful music," she said. "Of course it was a highlight of my life."
Darger has enjoyed this season with the Utah Symphony, completing music director Thierry Fischer's Beethoven cycle, but then she has enjoyed all of them.
"We've had wonderful seasons as long as I can remember," she said. "I've played with every great artist of the world that I know anything about, and it's been a joy and a pleasure."
Other orchestra members retiring at the close of the Utah Symphony's 2011-12 season:
Jack Ashton, violin (48 years) • Reared in Tyhee, Idaho, later moving to Utah and studying with David Shand, then assistant conductor of the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel. Ashton has mentored thousands of young musicians by teaching orchestra in Utah public schools for many years and conducting the Young Artist Chamber Players.
Carolee Baron, cello (44 years) • Reared in Salt Lake City; joined the Utah Symphony after graduating from Highland High School, having studied with members of the Utah Symphony, later receiving a degree from the University of Utah. Baron has been married to Utah Symphony violinist Tom Baron for 31 years.
Don Kramer, violin (41 years) • Born in Texas and reared in Southern California, where he studied music and pursued a career as a recording-studio and chamber-music artist before coming to the Utah Symphony in 1970. He is also a choral conductor and Bible scholar.
Lois Swint, violin (34 years) • Born in Nebraska and reared in Albuquerque, N.M. She played with the Albuquerque Symphony and received a degree in violin performance from the University of New Mexico before joining the Utah Symphony in 1978. She's also an organist and taught orchestra at Alta High School for 10 years.
Ed Gornik, trumpet (30 years) • Holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University. He came to the Utah Symphony after performing for four years with the San Antonio Symphony. Gornik has served on the brass faculties of the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Weber State University.