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Review: Orchestra Iowa scores triumphant victory with 'Homecoming' concert

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Kelli Sutterman / Admin  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:42 pm   ::  

"We're here!"

These words from Maestro Timothy Hankewich began the "Homecoming" concert for Orchestra Iowa in the Paramount Theatre on Saturday night (11/10/12). He was deeply moved by the occasion, and so was the audience.

The Paramount looks very good, indeed. And, perhaps for the first time in its 84-year history, it sounds good as well.

This important occasion signifies a rebirth for the orchestra. With the much improved acoustics, the enhanced range of playing, from the most subtle to the most dynamic, is now possible.

Only time will tell, but my guess is that the sound will get even better as the conductor and the musicians (if not the audience) adjust to enhanced potential. Saturday's audience was listening closely: laughing at the musical jokes in the Schuller work, and responding audibly to the stunning dynamics of the Mussorgsky. The hall makes you want to listen, invites your ears to open up: an ideal place for music-making to begin.

The new acoustical shell is handsome as well, and looks fine in the overall color scheme of the auditorium -- all bright and shiney and new.

The programming for the evening was, as is usual with Hankewich, very successful.

Opening with Cedar Rapids composer Jerry Owen's work, "Glee" from 1984, and followed by Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier Suite." The Strauss is, indeed, operatic: big, powerful emotions, and richly romantic, particularly in the waltz section. The string section of the orchestra is much improved, and benefits mightily from the new acoustics. Visions of Vienna lept off the stage, inviting us all to join in a New Year's Ball. A rare standing ovation at the end of the first half was the result.

The Gunther Schuller work that began the second half was a very special treat. Written in 1959, "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee" is inspired by the German/Swiss artist's paintings. Orchestra Iowa included color prints in the program, as well as projecting them on the back wall during the intermission.

Klee is an intriguing choice of inspiration, as he was also an accomplished violinist, raised in a musical family. Art historians frequently comment about the "musicality" of his work. I enjoyed all seven sections, particularly "Little Blue Devil." Schuller is a crossover musician -- a horn player, who played with jazz greats Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. His compositions frequently have a jazzy feel to them.

Perhaps the most successful of the seven pieces is "Arab Village." Klee was deeply impressed by a visit to Tunisia, and a number of fine paintings resulted. Schuller's response to the painting is remarkably evocative of the painting itself: hot sun, shimmering desert landscape, an essential loneliness, a harsh beauty. All brought together by the glowing color sense on the part of both artists.

The final work of the evening, Mussorgsky's "Pictures of an Exhibition," is a war horse for many an orchestra. As arranged by Ravel, we are familiar with many of its motifs, and I'm not sure where PBS-TV would be without its themes. But the music was played, let's say attacked, with remarkable freshness, as if it had just been written.

The full potential of the auditorium came into play with the performance of this work. Its conclusion, a reaching back to the power of traditional Russian culture, is present in "The Great Gate of Kiev." The conductor was in full command of his orchestra, demanding the percussive dynamics of the work, much like a football coach whose running back has just broken loose, racing for a touchdown. The audience lept to its feet, cheering its approval, like the crowd at a (winning) football game. It was a thrilling experience.

Congratulations to all those involved with the revivification of this hall, and of the orchestra itself. In a time when many orchestras around the country are struggling, Orchestra Iowa and The Paramount Theatre have emerged high and dry from the Cedar River. Onward!

The concert repeated Sunday afternoon in the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City.

Related:

Orchestra Iowa coming home in grand style

Paramount Theatre, Harry Connick Jr. shine at grand reopening

Paramount’s grand reopening celebrates recovery from flood

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