CEDAR RAPIDS — The committed passion of conductor Timothy Hankewich to the orchestral works of Johannes Brahms bridged the leap of time from 1883 to 2013, from Vienna to Cedar Rapids. Saturday evening’s performance (3/9/13) of Brahms Third Symphony by Orchestra Iowa was a triumph — the finest music-making of this year’s Homecoming Season at the Paramount Theatre.
The event began 45 minutes prior to curtain, with an “Insight” session in the Opus Concert Cafe, which was quite full. Hankewich introducted the auditioning concertmaster, Holly Mulcahy, and euphonium soloist Roger Oyster. The talk was bright and insightful, as the audience got to know the musicians, as well as the “Enigma Variations” of Edward Elgar. These sessions, held before most concerts, break down the formal barriers of an orchestral concert. They are a friendly, inviting introduction to the actual work of an orchestra, and are reccomended for all levels of sophistication.
Saturday’s program — which was repeated Sunday at West High School in Iowa City – included three works from 19th century Europe, starting with Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” First performed in 1899, it was the beginning of popularity for Elgar in the United Kingdom. The 14 variations are based on friends and family of the composer, their lives and their personalities, translated into musical terms.
The work is a sturdy opener to an orchestral evening, as one listens for the foghorn of a ship, or the self-aggrandizing finale which takes the composer as its subject.
The best known, and the most successful, variation is No. 9, “Nimrod,” devoted to hunting. With inspiration from Beethoven, the work is flowing and majestic. I also enjoyed No. 12, which featured a brief solo by cellist Carey Bostian. It is a slow, almost mournful section, dedicated to a valued friend of Elgar’s, who was a cellist.
I find Elgar’s work overly polite, perhaps overly British, for this day and time. The Finale (No. 14) becomes predictable in its resultant orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, it was played well by the orchestra. It’s just not my favorite piece of music.
Perhaps the work has survived because of the conundrum surrounding its creation. The composer said a second theme, a familiar one, that was to be heard throughout the piece. And for 114 years, this comment has driven musical historians into hissy fits, with dissertations and opinions abounding. I listened closely last night, and have come to the conclusion that Elgar was just putting us on, slyly having fun with his “engima.” There is no second theme. So there.
The first half of the evening featured the euphonium. This instrument is exotic in an orchestral setting, and is a transcribed substitute for the clarinet, as was originally written by composer Carl Maria von Weber in 1811. The euphonium is a tenor tuba, not as large as the tuba we know and love from endless band concerts and marching bands on the football field. It has, intriguingly, a dramatic power and a sweetness in its sound. It is not as cumbersome to play and to handle as the tuba, but looks to be challenging. It worked well as a curiousity and was delightful to hear in this 5-minute work.
The centerpiece of the evening was Brahm’s Third Symphony, beautifully conducted by Hankewich. He is deeply involved with the work and his conducting was fascinating to watch: circled arms stirring up the orchestra into a non-stop whirlwind, sensitively leading the players through the ongoing dynamics of the work. The back line of brass players performed well, and the string sections were equal to the challenge.
It is satisfying to hear and to feel the results of the Paramount’s new acoustical environment, which are by now well understood. The musicians have learned to trust the space and recognize its subtleties: the softer side of the Brahms was well celebrated.
This all-too-human achievement by Johannes Brahms is haunted by a sense of loss, by an active melancholy (“the dark side”) that agressively seeks expression. It is surprising at every turn, at every new phrase and is brilliantly realized. We are in the hands of one of the great music makers. It is a fine place to be, a great ride.
Brahm’s Third Symphony is not an orchestral work that ends with clashing cymbals and timpani, that makes you want to leap to your feet and celebrate life. Rather, the composition has a wistful ending that leaves the audience quiet, thoughtful for a while, and then builds slowly into the deserved standing ovation. Congratulations to all concerned for this superb finale.