CEDAR RAPIDS — A magnificent achievement.
Without a doubt, Orchestra Iowa’s “Burana at Brucemore” was the finest program I’ve seen in 27 years attending events staged by the organization formerly known as the Cedar Rapids Symphony.
Saturday’s concert drew 3,500 people to the front lawn at Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE. Many set up picnics, from finger foods on paper plates to elaborate feasts with wine in crystal goblets. It was our own Ravinia for a night.
And what a stellar night it was, from the concert’s majestic beginning to triumphant ending, peppered with bravoes, cheers, whistles and standing ovations throughout.
The audience wasn’t limited to the folks blanketing the lawn. The program also was broadcast statewide live by Iowa Public Radio Classical.
Daniel Kleinknecht made a grand debut as the orchestra’s resident conductor, who will assist with the ensemble’s educational outreach, step to the podium on occasion and fill in for Maestro Timothy Hankewich in case of emergency. Kleinknecht, founder of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, appropriately wielded the baton with aplomb for the concert’s first half, showcasing three well-loved operatic arias performed by soloists with impressive national resumes.
But first, in a nod to how far we’ve come since the epic floods of 2008, the orchestra launched the evening with “Majestic River.” The sweeping work ebbed and flowed, opening with horn call answered by strings, swelling to full orchestra, moving to a delicate passage by woodwinds and strings, then back to a powerful, lush sound with solo instrumental voices rising above.
(Sound engineering was spot-on throughout the concert, striking a perfect balance between vocals and instrumentals, while allowing dynamics to range from the softest sounds to sonic booms.)
Then baritone soloist Christopheren Nomura gave everyone the shock of the evening. Calmly lounging on a blanket in the audience during the opening piece, he heard the opening passages to his piece, jumped up, gulped his wine, grab his tux jacket — and started singing from the audience. He darted through the crowd, sang to some kids down front, plopped in an empty lawn chair, then sprinted up the ramp to take his rightful place centerstage.
The ruse was totally hilarious and appropriate for his role as Figaro in the instantly recognizable “Largo al Factotum” from “The Barber of Seville.” He completely charmed the crowd with Figaro’s bravado, and drew an immediate standing ovation.
He raised the bar high, but soprano Celena Shafer answered that with a glorious performance of “Marietta’s Lied” from “Die Tote Stadt.” With emotion borne on the wings of deepest sorrow, her voice floated to the heavens as she sang of her lost love. Opera is at its best when it moves us to tears regardless of the language being sung. Supertitles were provided on a screen near the stage, but no translation was needed to hear the heartbreak of this beautiful piece.
Nathan Granner followed superbly with Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” one of the world’s greatest tenor arias. The beautiful string and full orchestral lines stirred Granner’s masterful performance to its dramatic climax. Again, audience members instantly rose to their feet.
Then the fireworks began. Maestro Hankewich expertly guided more than 230 musicians through the hourlong Carl Orff’s masterpiece, “Carmina Burana.”
Singers of all ages — from the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, the Children’s Discovery Chorus, the Coe College Concert Choir and community members — joined the soloists and the orchestra for the bombastic work, which begins and ends with an ominous urgency that has sparked many a fearful moment in such films as “The Omen” and “The Hunt for Red October.”
The tone doesn’t always stay serious, as the work moves through various stages of life and love, from themes of religion and morals to not-so-subtle flirting and boisterous drinking songs.
Again, the vocal soloists were superb in their physical interpretations of the text, and the orchestra has never sounded better.
I could go on and on with accolades. Suffice it to say, this concert was monumental in every sense.
-- DIANA NOLLEN, THE GAZETTE