Central College News

Featured: The Man Behind the Music

October 27, 2011


It’s a pleasant July evening on the Iowa State Capitol grounds with the sky above sinking into velvety summer darkness. The sun is setting, throwing its last rays off the Capitol’s golden rotunda as 100,000 people sit on the grand stairs leading down from the building.

Below, the 80-piece Des Moines Symphony Orchestra is swelling to the climatic finish of the dramatic 1812 Overture. As the last notes ring out, a man waits anxiously offstage before finally yelling “Fire!” signaling the fire department to begin the fireworks display and the National Guard to set off the howitzers

Of all of the varied responsibilities John Roloff ’10 handles as the operations manager of the Des Moines Symphony, this may be his favorite.

“Operations in the symphony world relates mostly to production,” says Roloff. “I do everything to manage the production of our concerts.” From organizing venue reservations and managing equipment to coordinating travel arrangements, negotiating guest appearance fees and assisting in repertoire planning, Roloff is the man behind the orchestra. When you attend a Des Moines Symphony event, his hard work has organized the logistics of the performance.

The 2011 Yankee Doodle Pops. Photo credit: Chris Maharry, courtesy of the Des Moines Symphony

At Central, Roloff was a music education major with a conducting emphasis. Classical symphonies and modern compositions fascinated him. “I’ve always enjoyed listening to orchestras and classical music because it’s so powerful,” he explains. “It’s amazing to me the work that goes into composing for 80 musicians on stage.”

Despite his passion, Roloff didn’t always plan to enter the business side of the music industry. Playing in ensembles and studying conducting in college, it seemed like he was destined to be on stage rather than off. But during his senior year, a professor recommended he complete an internship. He applied to the Des Moines Symphony, where he had previously volunteered, and landed a position for the spring. He was handed demanding tasks right away. “As an intern I set the production budget for the next fiscal year,” he says. “That usually doesn’t happen.”

When he received his diploma at the end of the semester, he was offered his current position, despite his lack of business experience. “Typically, somebody in my job would have a business background,” he admits.

That’s understandable, considering the finance and marketing work that goes into his position. His understanding of both business and music helps him to choose the best repertoire for the two most important demographics: the audience and the musicians. He aims to achieve a balanced music selection that is both interesting to the orchestra and marketable to the audience. “We’re not fulfilling our mission unless we get butts in the seats,” he jokes. “But we still want to play a wide variety of repertoire that is stimulating to the musicians.”

Roloff is studying for an M.B.A. through the University of Iowa, but he still believes his music degree serves him well. It gives him the knowledge to anticipate an orchestra’s needs, and his innate passion inspires him in his work.

“My primary job is to serve the music,” he explains. “I need to understand how the orchestra functions, how the orchestra rehearses, what the orchestra needs to rehearse. Ultimately, being a musician and studying music helps me to know those kinds of things.”