BSO’s Composer Discovery Project to feature 2024 winner Saturday

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – The story of the Dust Bowl, the years-long environmental disaster that re-shaped California and especially Kern County, has been told many times.

The Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra is telling that story again, with music.

The BSO’s season finale will include, among other performances this Saturday, a piece called “Dust Swirls, then Speaks”, by local composer Doug Davis.

Davis, perhaps best known as the founder and – for its entire 21 year run – director of the Bakersfield Jazz Festival, transforms howling winds, rattling jalopies and the anguish of an uncertain future into orchestral movements. Then, upon the migrants’ arrival, relief and joy.

“And in the writing of it, I had moments of great joy myself,” he said, “because the idea had many guises. By the end, there’s almost a bit of fun that’s part of this journey.”

Davis’s participation is made possible by the Catherine M. Urner Composer Discovery Project, a first year competition designed to, as the name implies, seek and encourage local talent. Davis is the first winner of the award, sponsored by the Barbara (Urner) Johnson and Gordon K. Johnson Charitable Trust.

Cynthia Johnson-George is the great niece of Catherine Urner, an undiscovered composer herself and sister of the founder of the well-known Bakersfield appliance store empire. Members of her family, she said, have been longtime ticket holders and financial supporters of the symphony. The Discovery Project felt like a good fit.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool,” Johnson-George said, “‘If we could link this Discovery Project, which promotes new music, to the name of Urner, to our great aunt, who was a composer?’”

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John Steinbeck’s great novel, set against the Dust Bowl migration – “The Grapes of Wrath” – was published in 1939, and Kern County banned it. County supervisors even burned copies, angry about how it portrayed growers. Many protested, including Catherine Urner’s 16-year-old niece and eventual biographer, Barbara Urner Johnson, Cynthia’s mother.

“When I realized Doug’s piece was about the Dust Bowl, a lightbulb went off for me,” Johnson-George said.

By this time of the book’s publication, Catherine Urner had experienced a fulfilling career in music, minus the lifelong difficulties of getting her work published and performed. What she needed, perhaps, was a symphony-sponsored Discovery Project that now bears her name.

Clearly, the Urner family has long been devoted to arts and entertainment, be it literature, orchestral music or big-screen TVs.

Saturday evening’s show at Mechanics Bank Theater also features pianist Roman Rabinovich and much more. Doors open at 5:15 p.m., tickets $35 to $60, kids and students getting 50% off select seating.

If you’d like to hear Robert Price’s complete interview with composer Doug Davis, go to our website,

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