Two years ago, an unlikely impresario named Ralph Baker set out to create a symphony orchestra from the ground up. He succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, including his own.

Since its premier on Oct. 26, 1991, the West Valley Symphony Orchestra that Baker founded has performed more than a dozen concerts, culminating in an appearance this month in the musically hallowed Abravanel Hall. Who would have thought it could happen?"I know, it's gone so much better than I ever dreamed," Baker said. "It is established. The West Valley Symphony is an established orchestra."

Community leaders in Utah's second largest city agree and hail the organization as a cultural prize. Audiences have flocked to every performance. More than 90 musicians have eagerly joined the orchestra - without pay.

Baker attributes the symphony's success to conductor Robert Lentz, associate conductor Stephen Baker, good musicians, a popular repertoire and the support of the community. Missing from that list is his own contribution, which most observers say merits the spot at the top.

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An 80-year-old retired engineer who "can't read a note of music," Baker decided to form an orchestra after his son, Stephen, left the troubled Murray Symphony. Baker broached the subject with Lentz, who had resigned as Murray's conductor, and together the trio began a search for musicians. They expected only 30 or 40 "bites" but got 72 before the first rehearsal and had 90 on board by the first performance. Many had been waiting for years for an opportunity to play with a symphony.

With the encouragement of West Valley business, political and arts leaders, the new symphony is now performing an average of seven concerts a year. The audiences have been growing and are, judging by the applause and return engagements, very appreciative.

"One woman said she thought we were as good as the Utah Symphony. We're not, but it's very gratifying to hear that," Baker said with a laugh. "You have to remember that we only rehearse two hours a week while the Utah Symphony practices more than that every day."

Baker says West Valley's symphony has caught on with the public because of its emphasis on popular classics "that people can relate to" rather than the "long-hair ho-hum stuff." According to Baker, "that makes all the difference."

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