Orchestra Iowa is returning to a home that looks familiar but sounds completely different.
That’s a good thing for everyone from the back of the stage to the back row of the balconies.
Acoustic upgrades were among the paramount improvements slated in the Paramount Theatre’s $35 million rehabilitation plan. The walls were re-contoured where possible and a new state-of-the-art shell now surrounds the orchestra on stage, with a reflector out front to bounce sound throughout the hall, eliminating the previous “dead spaces” that swallowed up lyrics and instrumental subtleties.
With this new life comes welcomed new lessons and new experiences to embrace. Orchestra Iowa members who played in the venerable venue before the Floods of 2008 silenced the building for four long years now have their work cut out for them.
“We’re going to have to relearn how to play,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich says. “We’ve been playing very loud for a very long time, because the acoustics we’ve been playing in have been drier. In the Paramount of old, we literally had to shovel the sound off the stage.
“Now we have a shell and an acoustic where the sound is going to be so present, the orchestra’s going to have to adjust. We can actually play with nuance now. And you know what? That is a whole new world that I can’t wait to attack.”
Rehearsals this week will lead up to the orchestra’s triumphant Homecoming concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City.
- Orchestra Iowa “Homecoming” concerts
- Cedar Rapids: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (11/10), Paramount Theatre; free "Insight" discussion at 6:30 p.m.
- Iowa City: 2:30 p.m. Sunday (11/11), Iowa Memorial Union; free "Insight" discussion at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets: $20 to $50 at the Orchestra Iowa Ticket Office
- 1-(800) 369-8863 or Orchestraiowa.org
“I’m looking forward to an experience where we have people back home,” Hankewich says.
“People have been talking about what is the orchestra going to sound like, what is the audience going to sound like,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the experience that it once was, but better.”
Careful consideration went into programming Orchestra Iowa’s yearlong homecoming season, starting with Saturday’s return.
The program begins with “Glee,” by Cedar Rapids composer Jerry Owen; “Der Rosenkavalier Suite” by Richard Strauss; “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee” by Gunther Schuller; and “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky.
“Every piece that’s on this work showcases not only the theater, but it also starts that learning process of how to play in this theater,” Hankewich says.
“For example, the American work by Gunther Schuller … requires an extremely large orchestra, but at the same time, the way it’s orchestrated requires solos and chamber music within, so it attenuates the ears for the musicians to actually hear each other in this new context, so it requires a lot of fine, nuanced playing.
“Jerry Owen’s piece, ‘Glee,’ which inaugurated the Paramount the last time it was renovated, is extremely difficult and requires extremely precise rhythmic playing, which is a great educational opportunity for this orchestra to retrain itself. And the Strauss, which is absolutely awash with virtuosic playing, finally (will be performed) in the acoustic the music was designed for.
“It’s like test-driving a new Ferrari.”
Of course, it helps to have elite drivers at the wheel. These musicians won’t need multiple laps around the track to nail it down.
“One of the leaps we’ve made in professionalism in the last four years is that we do more with fewer rehearsals,” Hankewich says.
“Everything the orchestra’s doing this year is really a showcase, a Top 10,” says CEO Robert Massey, an accomplished musician who has played trumpet with the Boston Pops.
“We’ve taken a lot of thought to what we’re playing on this opening concert. It’s just a real celebration of getting the orchestra back in there.
“Throughout the rest of the year, you’re going to hear a who’s who of the Top 10, from Brahms 3 to the Dvorak 8, Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story,’” Massey says.
“One of the things we’re really excited about is the ballet ‘Cinderella.’ From an orchestra perspective, not only is it a great ballet, the music is one of the favorite concerts of the orchestra’s,” Massey says.
Thanks to the Paramount’s expanded orchestra pit, it can seat a full 50-piece orchestra to stage “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” ballets, as well as the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s “La Boheme.”
“That could never have been done in the past,” Massey says. “The program-ability of the Paramount Theatre is just astronomically increased.”