Friday, July 28, 2017

HUEY 7: WCF Symphony

WCF Symphony: Unmissable Music
Office: Gallagher-Bluedorn PAC #17, Cedar Falls, IA 50614
Performance Site: Great Hall, Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Cedar Falls
Artistic Director/Conductor: Jason Weinberger (15 seasons)

The Great Hall, Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Cedar Falls

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony has a long history serving the cultural community of the Cedar Valley. Initially performing in Waterloo high school auditoria, in 2000 the ensemble most to the stunning Gallagher Bluedorn PAC on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. All has not always been smooth sailing in the "captain's seat" Following the departure of 17-year veteran Joseph Giunta (1974-92), the orchestra had four conductors in the ensuing ten years, with some tenures lasting months instead of years. With the arrival of Mr. Weinberger in 2002, WCF has become a leader in innovative programming. The orchestra's "history page" notes that "we are also uniquely devoted to living American music – nearly a third of our repertoire over the past 10 years has consisted of new or recent music from Iowa and across the country."

No one could ever accuse WCF of the Overture-Concerto-Symphony format in its concert program; each seems to intentionally deviate from the tried and not-so-true. There is one "traditional" piece on its season opener (Appalachian Spring) as well as a piece so deserving of more performances, The White Peacock by the American impressionist, Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

The performances I have always appreciated the most have been the actual chamber concerts at Waterloo's Brown Derby Ballroom. These are user-friendly, briefer than a typical full symphony concert (hence, two concerts in one day), and performed in the round in a more intimate space. This year's offerings include:

Serenades (November)
  • W. A. Mozart – Overture, Abduction from the Seraglio (Harmoniemusik)
  • Franz Schubert – Minuet and Finale
  • Franz Krommer – Partita in F major
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Rondino in E-flat
  • W. A. Mozart – Serenade no. 11 in E-flat (I only wish they were performing the C-minor serenade. What a piece!)
Concertos (February)
  • J. S. Bach – D major Harpsichord Concerto with Jason Weinberger
  • Johann Friedrich Fasch – Chalumeau Concerto with Daniel Friberg
  • C. P. E. Bach – A minor Cello Concerto with Isaac Pastor-Chermak
  • George Frideric Handel – Concerto Grosso Op. 3 no. 4

The Brown Derby Ballroom, Waterloo
Another item of particular interest (for me, at least) is

The Hungarian Project, with Anima Musicae and violinist László G. Horváth. (May)
  • Johannes Brahms – Hungarian Dances 1,3 & 10
  • Béla Bartók – Divertimento
  • Béla Bartók – Rhapsody no. 1 with László G. Horváth
  • Zoltán Kodály – Dances of Galanta
Anima Musicae (the soul of music) defines its mission to create a musical workshop where European quality sound, carrying on the noble traditions of the Hungarian musical culture, and respect for the value-creating examples of great predecessors are essential requirements along with their determination for constant self-renewal. Their repertoire, embracing the significant periods of classical music, ranges from baroque, through 20th-century masterpieces to contemporary music. They regularly perform pieces composed by Hungarian composers especially for them.

“It’s a really cool project....Laszlo will come and lead the group in two works by Bartok. I’ll conduct, and he’ll be concertmaster, which is not a typical guest artist role. I think the audience, orchestra, and musicians are going to have an unforgettable experience,” Weinberger says.

WCF has also made youth education a significant part of its mission. Rather than simply sponsoring a tuition-driven youth ensemble program, its offerings include

YOUTH CONCERTS, which inspire 4,000 4th-6th graders each April and serve schools from an 8-county radius. These free concerts at the Gallagher-Bluedorn feature the full orchestra in creative and interactive programs. Local educators work with wcfsymphony to create materials that help teachers integrate the concert experience into their classroom curriculum.
LOLLIPOP CONCERTS are free Saturday morning performances that have delighted children and their families for over 30 years. This season’s series will feature the three unique, engaging performances listed below. Our legendary – and often gleefully loud – Instrument Petting Zoo is available for musical fun immediately after each concert.

One thing can always be said of WCF seasons: they are never bland.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

HUEY 6: Quad City Symphony

QUAD CITY SYMPHONY "Musical Postcards."
Office: 327 Brady Street, Davenport, IA 52801
Performance Sites: Adler Theater (Davenport), Centennial Hall (Rock Island)
Conductor: Mark Russell Smith (9 seasons)

Adler Theater, Davenport (capacity 2400)

Centennial Hall, Augustana College, Rock Island (capacity 1600)
It must be a twist of irony that I happened to see mention of the "Tri-City Symphony" while reading a biography of conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos. He was a close friend of James Dixon, who had been appointed conductor of that ensemble in the 1950s. Mitropoulos himself came to Davenport to usher in his friend's new position, one that would also include a post as Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of Iowa. Dixon was still leading the orchestra when I relocated to the Quad Cities in 1987, and his performances of Mahler remain the stuff of legend.

That said, the orchestra went through a difficult time following Dixon's retirement with successive conductors not appealing to either the public or the personnel. Things have obviously turned around since the arrival of Mr. Smith in 2008. Smith needs to be commended for the commissioning project during the orchestra's 100th anniversary season as well as his participation in the Benjamin Britten War Requiem project a few years ago. These are endeavors worthy of the orchestra and its patrons.

It should be noted that Smith also serves as Artistic Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of Minnesota as well as Artistic Director of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies. Each of these would be a full time job in itself. I've always wondered, with so many conductors wearing different hats, does one--over time--not fit so well anymore. This is not meant to suggest anything more than what I've written. I just wonder...

The upcoming season, "Musical Postcards" offers a few programs with a diverse repertoire, while others either fall into the now established "pattern" or come off as a smattering of tunes tossed together in an odd-tasting musical salad.

Some of the oddities include:

Postcards from the Wild West:
  • John Williams: The Cowboys Overture (actually one of the famed composer's best)
  • David Ludwig: Violin Concerto
  • Jacob Bancks: Into the Wild   ????????
  • Copland: Billy the Kid Suite
And then there is the Postcards from Venice concert: the Arban Carnival of Venice (I have yet to find the tie to the city), a Vivaldi concerto, Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite (huh?) a couple of Rossini overtures (one wasn't enough?) and more. 

The Postcards from Russia should read "Postcards from Tchaikovsky" as all of the compositions were written by good old Pete.

The now-expected pops concerts include the annual "Riverfront Pops" (Beatles Greatest Hits), "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (with the film), and "QCSO: A Space Odyssey. 

The season closes with a gala performance, "An Evening with Joshua Bell." 

So, two works by living composers, five from the twentieth century (all dead) and lots of old favorites. I may try out a Sunday concert to hear the Ludwig concerto since I'm usually in the QCs rehearsing with the Wind Ensemble. The rest? When I was 18, I managed through a Tchaikovsky marathon at Meadowbrook, former summer home of the Detroit Symphony. I think I have that out of my system.

The QCSO does have a lively history in its bank. My only hope is that Smith and Company don't rest on their laurels.

And in the "I wish" category, there is another--truly lovely theater in Davenport that I wish was used for concerts:

Davenport's Capitol Theatre: an unused gem

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Huey 5: Orchestra Iowa

ORCHESTRA IOWA: "Outstanding" (they'd better be!)
Office: 119 Third Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401
Performance Sites: Paramount Theater (Cedar Rapids), Coralville Center for the Arts, Brucemore Mansion Lawn (Cedar Rapids), West High School (Iowa City), Independence (IA) High School, Voxman Concert Hall (University of Iowa), Opus Concert Cafe (Cedar Rapids), Old Capitol Senate Chamber (Iowa City).
Conductor: Timothy Hankewich (11 seasons)

Concert night at the renovated Paramount Theater.

Old Capitol Building, Iowa City
Since the 500-year flood of Cedar Rapids in 2008, an act of nature that reeked untold damage to that city as well as the arts complex at the University of Iowa. Built within a flood plain near the Iowa River, flooding leashed its wrath on the music facilities and the university's main concert site, Hancher Auditorium. Both were finally replaced eight years after the onslaught. In Cedar Rapids, the beautiful Paramount Theater was filled with water, damaging the auditorium itself, anything stored in the lower level dressing rooms and basically destroying the theater's "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ.

Downtown Cedar Rapids, Summer 2008

The remains of the Mighty Wurlitzer

Finding itself homeless for an extended period of time, the (then) Cedar Rapids Symphony embarked on a nomadic journey. Without a home in Cedar Rapids, the orchestra set out to refine itself and expand its outreach beyond the environs of the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor. The result was a reimagined ensemble: Orchestra Iowa. Personally, I thought the name was presumptuous; this wasn't "my" orchestra; why make the not-so-subtle claim that it was "Iowa's" orchestra. In all honesty, I may be coming around.

The concert programs of Orchestra Iowa are a mixed bag; some follow the "formula," while others deviate significantly. What is of particular interest to me are those that include lesser known works such as:
  • Alberto Ginastera: Variaciones Concertantes (Having written a dissertation on the piece, I'll admit my bias. Still, this piece needs to be played much more.)
  • Jean Sibelius: A symphony? Nope; Swan of Tuonela.
  • William Bolcom: Orphee Serenade
  • And yes, a bit of silliness: Dmitri Shostakovich: Tahiti Trot
A number of "traditional" concertos appear (Shostakovich: Cello Concerto 1, Mozart: Piano Concerto 21, Rachmaninoff: Paganini Rhapsody.) The orchestra is presenting the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, but they've brought in Emmanuel Ax as the soloist; this concert is in April and is well worth the trip.

The concert season ends in June with the monumental Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, a major undertaking for any ensemble. But that's not all, Orchestra Iowa also presents opera (Turandot, with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theater) and ballet (Alice in Wonderland, with the Quad City Ballet.) Orchestra Iowa jumps on the pops bandwagon but offers a live performance--with the film--of the classic Casablanca.

But again, that's not all. There is also a chamber series, presented at the Opus Cafe and other sites. With each program centering around different repertoire and instrumental combinations, these excursions into true "chamber" music promise an authentic experience of this genre.

I probably sound like I'm gushing, and I suppose I am. Orchestra Iowa has become the major player in classical music in this part of the Midwest. While I am a fan of the Chicago Symphony, there are plenty of reasons to skip the drive, the traffic, the hotels, and simply stay close to home.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

HUEY 4: Madison Symphony

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA "Listen With All Your Heart" (Seriously?)
Office: 222 W. Washington Ave. Suite 460 Madison WI 53703
Performance Venue: Overture Center for the Arts (capacity 2255)
Conductor: John de Main (24th season)

Madison is very proud of its shining new hall, built totally with private funds. The concert hall contains a magnificent Klais concert organ. In fact, the organ took nearly three years to design and build. Including its unique movable chamber, the instrument weighs in at 174 tons and is believed to be the heaviest movable object in any theater in the world.

The orchestra obviously has a wealth of financial support; soloists for the current season include Gil Shaham, Sharon Isbin, Olga Kern, and Christopher O'Riley, among others. Orchestra personnel includes faculty and students from the Mead-Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, putting into place all the parts for an orchestra of unmatched quantity and quality. In the state's liberal bastion, one would expect that audiences would expect concert programs far beyond the standards of the repertory.

And yet, that's not what is happening. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Prokofiev: Love for Three Oranges Suite
  • Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
  • Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 (who plays that?)
Well, they're all Russian, but it's O - C - S
  • Ravel: Mother Goose Suite (this gets trotted out often, but I've heard the MSO play it better under a guest conductor.)
  • Barber: Piano Concerto
  • Dvorak: Symphony No. 9, From the New World (It's easy to offer a perfunctory reading of this old war horse. Among the most revelatory (to me) was David Becker's effort with the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra.)
And again: O - C - S

The rest is same-old, same old. Throw in the Rodrigo Concierto as well as the Three-Cornered Hat Suite (those must be popular this year) and look at symphonies by Mendelssohn (5), Brahms (1), and Schumann (1), and things aren't really that thrilling. At least the soloists are of the highest caliber.

John DeMain is, of course, a conductor with many gifts and talents, but sometimes he has appeared to be ill-prepared for the task at hand. Most in the orchestra and many in the music community know that Mr. DeMain longs to conduct opera more than anything else. I understand that he is an entirely different conductor in the pit. It's a difficult task, trying to transfer one's energies and skills between symphonic and operatic work.

Madison audiences deserve that kind of (operatic) effort in the concert hall, and the orchestra needs to define a plan to attract an audience beyond its subscription base.

Monday, July 24, 2017

HUEY 3: Dubuque Symphony

DUBUQUE SYMPHONY "Be Moved" (Ugh...)
Office: 2728 Asbury Road, Suite 900, Dubuque, IA 52001-2970
Performance Site: Five Flags Theater (capacity c.700)
Conductor: William Intriligator (18th season)

Five Flags Theater interior

I have to admit more than a bit of bias against the Dubuque Symphony. One year after receiving a particularly glowing performance review (I served as Conductor of the Youth Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the DSO), I was released from employment. There was truly no reason given, although it was well known that I did have artistic differences with the newly-appointed conductor, Mr. Intriligator. Since my musical ability and integrity had never been questioned, it must have been something else.

Highlights:  Dubuque is offering two premieres this season, both commissioned by the orchestra. One features a trumpet concerto by Dubuque-native Michael Gilbertson, and the other is a purely orchestral work, Where Eagles Fly, by Ohio composer Rocky Reuter. The DSO is mounting a full-scale production of Bernstein's West Side Story to close the season in April. From the DSO season brochure: The DSO breaks new ground by presenting its first staged musical, West Side Story, in honor of the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein in 2018. Partnering with the Heartland Ballet, and with a cast of professionals who grew up in Dubuque and Tri-States, this will be a not-to-be-missed event!

One caveat: It had better be good. WSS has been staged by more than one area theater organization/school in the past few years. OK, another caveat: Can this "big" show be pulled off on a (very) small stage.

The programming for the remainder of the "classical" series comes off to me as a little slapdash. For example:
  • Manuel de Falla: Three-Cornered Hat Ballet Suite No. 1
  • Jean Sibelius: Finlandia with the Youth Orchestra (back in 2000, the same group performed it on four tour performances--all by itself.)
  • Michael Gilbertson: Trumpet Concerto
  • Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Two Violins RV 522
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (billed as Intriligator's "signature symphony")
The DSO appears to have, like Faust, sold its soul to the devil. For each of the five classic concerts, there are an equal number of pops concerts, including two separate performances ("Ultimate Rock Hits" and "Ultimate Country Hits") held at a casino venue. Other pops concerts include the annual Holiday Concerts (formerly including lighter classics, now no more), a spring family show, and an outdoor concert at the Arboretum, "Summer Melodies."

While individual works on some of these programs are enticing, I can't say that any single performance will totally "move" me.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

HUEY 2: Des Moines Symphony

DES MOINES SYMPHONY: "Music in Motion" (Isn't it always?)

Office: The Temple for Performing Arts, 1011 Locust Street, Suite 200, Des Moines, IA 50309
Performance Site: Des Moines Civic Center (capacity 2,744)
Conductor: Joseph Giunta (26th year)

Des Moines Civic Center: who chose the color scheme?
Of course, the best seats are usually in the middle;
Get there early. There is no center aisle.

And the exterior: brutalism at its best?
General: Because of its location the Des Moines Symphony has access to a talented player base, including faculty from Iowa State University and Drake University. Maestro Giunta's programming is conservative, and concert titles make little effort to inspire, e.g. "Invitation to the Dance," "Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake," "Stravinsky's Petrouchka," and the like. Each concert remains in large part the Overture - Concerto - Symphony format or some variation on that theme. The one truly new work is a world premiere by Augusta Reed Thomas, to be offered in March. That said, there will be two Beethoven works (the first piano concerto and the seventh symphony) to "soften the blow."

Regarding highlights, there is not a concert on this series that shouts out, "I just have to go to this show!" Solo works include violin concertos by Bruch (G-minor) and Sibelius, piano concertos by Beethoven (No. 1), Shostakovich (No. 2) and Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), as well as the ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez (for guitar) by Joaquin Rodrigo. Pops concerts include "The Music of Queen," the New Year's Pops - "The Classic Hits of Motown," and "Leslie Odom, Jr. in Concert."

In more ways than vitriolic politics, our capital city can do much better.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids
Without a doubt, Iowa's most beautiful concert "palace."

In Summer 2011, I began an ongoing series of posts rating the programming of local "regional" orchestras (those within a three-hour drive from the home office in Dubuque, Iowa). Originally, I wrote that,

The "Huey awards" are arbitrary, based on my own criteria which include possible thematic content, the inclusion of both contemporary and American composers, and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory.  Why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players)?  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works, and that's just the works of the "masters."

And I made short mention of contemporary composers. For the record, my own programming over the past few years has included a concert of female composers (with another to come in 2018) and our Musica Nova, focusing solely on the music of the twenty-first century.

Last year I established criteria for scoring; this year that, to me, got cumbersome. So to change it up (it's my system anyway), discussion of each orchestra will include "highlights" and "lowlights," as well as a look at each ensemble's contributions outside "classical" concerts.

Greg Sandow, composer, teacher, critic, and mensch wrote a November blog post on how not to write a press release. In it, he states,

My Juilliard course this fall is well underway, and its title (slightly shortened for clarity) is “How to Speak and Write About Music.”

We read descriptions of music, by critics and others. We practice describing music I play in class.

And, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, we study press releases, bios, and program notes to see how they’re written. And — you knew this was coming if you’ve read me on these subjects — how they could be written better.

They do a terrible job, so many of them, describing the music they’re trying to sell.

For more, read here.

Much of the same could be said for a lot of the publicity generated by orchestras and other arts organizations. Seasons are often highlighted by a catch phrase that is either esoteric or almost incomprehensible. Others are simply too cute for their own good. It's also interesting to read of so called "alternative facts" on some organizational web sites. But that will be left up to the reader. I'm a notorious fact checker, so it's in my blood. That may be unimportant to others. To each his (or her) own.

What? And miss the great music?