Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A NEW SEASON BEGINS

"Jolly Good!"
The Quad City Wind Ensemble commences a new season with "British Band Classics," October 22, at 3:00 PM at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center.

The cornerstone of the modern band repertoire was laid by visionary British composers such as Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob, and others. These men adapted the British brass band tradition to create a new medium: the "military band," which incorporated woodwinds. These composers and their landmark works remain among the most significant works for the contemporary symphonic bands and wind ensembles.



Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) is known to audiences for some of his lighter works, including A Grand Grand Overture(featuring three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher) and recently performed by the QCWE. Peterloo Overture departs significantly from that norm and is a highly dramatic depiction of an 1819 event. A crowd of some 8000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. The gathering was broken up by armed forces--including the cavalry--and resulted in eleven deaths and 400 injuries. Arnold wrote, "This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind will not have done so in vain."







Along with his original band works, symphonies, and other compositions, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) served as musical editor of the most important book of Anglican church music, the 1906 English Hymnal. Many of the tunes he collected and harmonized served as the impetus for other compositions, such as the three organ preludes of 1920. Based on Welsh hymn tunes, the best-known of these is probably Rhosymedre. The melody is simple, made up almost solely of scale tones, yet Vaughan Williams constructed a piece of grand proportion, with a broad arc that soars with the gradual rise of the tune itself. Walter Beeler arranged the lovely prelude for concert band in 1972, marking the composer's centenary.




Gordon Jacob's (1895-1984) magnum opus was undoubtedly the William Byrd Suite, composed originally for orchestra. The band edition, now a classic, came about on the recommendation of Adrian Boult, as part of the music for an exhibition and promotion of British national art and spirit. At this same time, Jacob, still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, composed the Original Suite, the title given by the publisher Boosey and Hawkes. Jacob said of that decision, "At that time very little original music was being written for what was then 'military band,' so the title was a way of distinguishing that it was an original work rather than an arrangement--not that the music was original in itself. It was an unfortunate title, I know." The entire piece emulates the folk tunes in wide use by other band composers. With two brisk outer movements, the dramatic climax is found within the Intermezzo, a beautiful tune ushered in by a solo alto saxophone with increasing chromaticism and even implied Impressionistic references. 



While the First Suite by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is based entirely on original material, the Second Suite in F is an arrangement of folk songs and morris dances. A very British style March leads to an instrumental version of one of the composer's choral works, the "Song without Words." Complete with an anvil, the "Song of the Blacksmith," is particularly evocative, while the "Fantasia on the Dargason," combines the main theme with "Greensleeves" in several variations and concluding with a duet for piccolo and tuba! Colin Matthews 1984 edition aims to return more closely to Holst's original scoring, and that is how we will offer it, only a bit larger than the minimum complement of 23 players. It's a whole different sound of this well-known work. I think the audience will love it.



A composer born in the British empire, who spent a significant amount of time in the Isles, and eventually settled in the United States, Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) remains among the great "characters" in music history. Himself a collector of folk tunes, he also dabbled in the creation of early electronic instruments, while championing the sarrusophone and an extensive use of large numbers of percussion instruments. Although Grainger wrote for a wide array of ensembles, the wind band claims him as its own (for we continue to play his music!)

Grainger (center) with his saxophone

Grainger wished that he had never written Country Gardens, a light piece of froth that sent audiences clamoring at every one of his concerts. It remained in constant demand as an encore wherever he went. In the 1950s, Leopold Stokowski came to Grainger with a proposition to re-arrange much of his music for a unique recording project. The 1953 version of Gardens is a radical departure from the original. Contained within are at least two "mistakes" in the harmony, the first of Grainger's jokes. Later, one can hear the trombones sticking out their tongues at the bourgeois audiences who refused to adopt any of his other works. It's all good fun. We'll try to get Stokowski's wind tempo!

Colonial Songcomposed as a Yule-gift for his mother, "Mumsie," in 1911, remains among the most beautiful pieces in the band's repertoire. Grainger himself wrote, "In this piece, the composer has wished to express feelings aroused by thoughts of the scenery and people of his native land, Australia."

"Gum-sucker" is an Australian nick-name for Australians form in Victoria, the home state of the composer. The eucalyptus trees that abound in Victoria are called "gums," and the young shoots at the bottom of the trunk are called "suckers"; so "gum-sucker" came to mean a young native son of Victoria, just as Ohioans are nick-named "Buck-eyes." In the march, Grainger has used his own "Australian Up-Country-Song melody, written by him to typify Australia, which melody he also employed in his "Colonial Song." Gum-suckers March is the final movement of the suite, "In a Nutshell," but has become a stand-alone favorite.

A concert full of favorites. Who could possibly want to miss it?

Friday, July 28, 2017

HUEY 7: WCF Symphony

WCF Symphony: Unmissable Music
Office: Gallagher-Bluedorn PAC #17, Cedar Falls, IA 50614
https://wcfsymphony.org
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
https://qcso.org
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
http://www.artsiowa.com/orchestra/
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
OR
  • 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
http://www.dubuquesymphony.org
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.