When Kortney Stirland steps up to conduct the Symphony of the Canyons orchestra Saturday night, the memories will come flooding back.

It’s been 25 years since Stirland took over the leadership of the biggest little symphony orchestra in the west. Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. free concert at the Angels Landing amphitheatre at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary will be a fitting tribute to his many years of leadership, as well as the dedication of so many musicians who have played for the symphony through the years.

The concert is a joint celebration of the 25-year anniversaries of the Symphony of the Canyons and Best Friends Animal Society, both of which were founded in 1984. The upcoming performance will be the first time the symphony has played at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

“It’s been worth every back-breaking minute,” Stirland said this week, in between filling prescriptions at Zion Pharmacy, a business he owns. “Absolutely, there’s not one regret. The more you put into it the more you get out of it. I truly have been blessed by the experience.”

It was back in 1984 when the leadership of the LDS Church in Utah decided to sponsor a musical performance of “The Music Man,” and to pull it off they needed a pit orchestra.

“I can’t remember how they found out I could do it, but I was asked to come onboard and organize the orchestra,” he recalls. “It was so successful that we decided to keep on playing.”

A quarter of a century later, Stirland is still at it every Thursday night when the symphony rehearses at Kanab High School. “We practiced in the old middle school for a few years before moving to the high school,” he said.

Stirland is a product of a musical family. “My parents made sure their kids took lessons and learned an instrument,” he said. “I had some good piano teachers who made me want to be involved in music.”

After earning musical degrees from Dixie College and Southern Utah University, he taught school for a year, but decided it wasn’t what he wanted to do for a career.

“I really didn’t consider being a professional musician because I didn’t think I had the motivation to pay the price,” he said. “I totally understand what it takes to be a good musician, and it includes a lot of luck, work and sacrifice. But I wanted to have a family who had a father who was home and as a musician it would have been tough to have a stable life.”

Stirland and his wife, B.J., are well known in the community through their work at the pharmacy. All five of their children; Mindi 30, Kari 28, Katy 25, Jeff 22 and Craig 15, studied music in the local school system. All but Craig have played in Dad’s orchestra.”

“By far the biggest challenge for the orchestra is turnover,” he says. “We have a foundation of people who have been in our orchestra for years and stick with it. We also have players who come to Kanab, stay here for a while and move on. In many cases, we convince people to dust off their instruments and join our orchestra. And when they move away, they continue playing with another orchestra in another city.”

Credit for the Symphony of the Canyons, Stirland says, goes to the musicians who come from all over the area to play in the 10 concerts or so the orchestra performs each year.

“It’s not just Kanab, but Page, Hurricane, Fredonia, Orderville and other communities who have sent us musicians. Without the talent from all these communities, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it all this time.”

It’s obvious Stirland, a modest man who would rather give accolades to his musicians than accept them himself, immensely enjoys his music.

“I do practice the piano and perform a couple of times a year with my children. It keeps me motivated. I wish I could play more in the community. There are a number of fine pianists in this town—people who have spent thousands of hours developing that craft.

   “We’re extremely lucky in our communities. There just happened to be, and there still are, a lot of good musicians here.”