CEDAR RAPIDS – Perfect weather, perfect programming and nearly perfect performances created a triumphant triumvirate for the fifth annual Brucemorchestra concert on the front lawn of Brucemore mansion Sunday night.
Just when you think you saw the best Orchestra Iowa has to offer last year and the year before, the brilliant minds behind the music come up with yet another thrilling program.
This one moved through some of the most elegant, sophisticated works engrained in our collective consciousness: Gershwin’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American Paris,” Grofe’s instantly recognizable “Grand Canyon Suite” and Copland’s majestic “The Promise of Living,” with a wisp of nostalgia from “Shenandoah” tucked in between.
The giant outdoor stage not only showcased the orchestra, but left enough room to accommodate more than 120 singers from the Cedar Rapids Concert Choir and Mount Mercy University and Coe College concert choirs, a dozen dancers from Ballet Quad Cities and 4,000-plus audience members filling the lawn from stage to mansion.
Every orchestral piece was amazing — an ideal way to warm the hearts of Orchestra Iowa regulars and enthrall those who may not often attend a symphonic concert. Among my particular pleasures was seeing a toddler boy in the front row dancing with the ballerinas and mimicking the hee-hawing violin slides he heard as the musical mule brayed its way down the Grand Canyon trail.
The orchestra has forged a new partnership with Ballet Quad Cities to bring the joys of “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” ballets to the Paramount Theatre this season. The professional dance troupe whet our appetites by premiering two new works to open and close the evening’s extravaganza.
“An American in Paris” conjured up a beautiful blend of classical and jazz, full of coy and daring as the men chase and the women retreat, then leap into their arms. It’s all a swirl of sight and sound as the dancers and the orchestra explore the bustling, romantic City of Lights, complete with joyous bursts from taxi horns and brass.
This was an exciting tour de force for dancers and musicians alike, with beautiful spins, leaps and lifts set to all the syncopation we expect from Gershwin, layered with drama — and making me recall Gene Kelly with a sigh.
After a somewhat uneven a cappella “Shenandoah” from the combine choirs — with pitches sometimes dipping below their center — came the piece de resistance and one of my all-time favorite pieces: ”Rhapsody in Blue.”
This sublime exercise in fascinating rhythms begins with sexy, smoldering clarinet before stellar pianist Alan Huckleberry from the University of Iowa faculty tore up the keys with the pounding proximity of tone clusters that shatter into light, deft elegance.
Huckleberry plays with equal parts swagger, skill and artistry, moving seamlessly between the ever-shifting moods. The orchestral arrangement doesn’t relegate the other instruments to a supporting role. They come to the fore often and easily, trading a commanding presence with the pianist. Whether working alone or in tandem, one never overpowers the other.
Maestro Timothy Hankewich obviously relishes the musical ride, painting the mood with broad sweeps of his baton.
The final spiraling crescendo brought cheering audience members instantly to their feet.
The second half of the two-hour concert was equally thrilling, with Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” soundscape and Copland’s earthy harvest homage, “The Promise of Living.”
Hankewich helped the audience see the Grand Canyon sights, with fun and informative explanations of the various movements, beginning with a sunrise, moving through an eerie, mysterious painted desert, on to the stubborn mule trek to the canyon floor and back, leading into a quiet sunset. It’s all followed by a monster cloudburst, drenching the desert and the audience with fury, accompanied by a wind machine that mirrors the dry wind cacophony that turns dust devils and tumbleweeds into the tempest Hankewich described and the orchestra created.
Juilliard student Luke Witchger, 20, serving as the evening’s concertmaster, stepped into the spotlight for all the mulish hee-hawing and balking of “On The Trail,” the suite’s most famous movement. His violin sings with an enthusiasm that nearly raises his body off his chair. His parents traveled from Omaha to experience their son in his glory, and his two older brothers in Washington, D.C., got to listen via Iowa Public Radio’s concert live stream. How cool is that?
All of the concert forces joined for Copland’s lovely finale, “The Promise of Living,” with the dancers’ flowing dresses, organic movements and outstretched arms pulling in the harvest while the glorious, soaring sounds of the choirs and the orchestra cut through the crisp, night air.
More standing ovations surely let the performers know how captivated we were with the entire production. Such a thrilling way to launch Orchestra Iowa’s 91st season.