Roll over Beethoven? Not yet.
A small but happy crowd heard two rare orchestral works and a war horse from Ludwig Van Beethoven, his Seventh Symphony, in Orchestra Iowa’s “Beauty and Beethoven.” This latest successful concert opened Friday night (11/8/12) Iowa City’s West High School Auditorium, and continues Saturday night in Cedar Rapids and Sunday afternoon in Mason City.
The multiple delights are the orchestra itself, the ever ebullient conductor Timothy Hankewich and double bass virtuoso Volkan Orhon. The first half of the program features Italian composers Giuseppi Martucci (1856 to 1909) and Nino Rota (1911 to 1979).
Martucci’s “Nocturne” is pretty, in the loveliest sense of the word. The nocturnal nature of the work is evident, with smoothly flowing effects from the string sections. It is a good “opener” — quite brief and quite gorgeous.
Young concertmaster Luke Witchger is having a felicitous effect on the string sections, with passionate playing and rich result. He is a welcome upgrade for the orchestra, and has a physicality that is a pleasure to observe. This young man means business. The orchestra as a whole is sounding better and better, and blends well with the relatively intimate West High Auditorium.
Hankewich is able to coax considerable subtlety from his players, particularly in the softer dimensions.
The second work, by Nino Rota, is a sprightly piece, upbeat and pleasing. It sounds like movie music, and, indeed, Rota is best known for scoring more than 150 films. He has written for some of the finest movies ever made, including Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and “La Strada.” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films used his music to legendary effect.
The genuine pleasure of this work is the solo artistry of Orhon on the double bass. The instrument is large and cumbersome, and Orhon plays it as if he was dancing with a submissive bear. A faculty member of the University of Iowa’s music department, he brings a remarkable level of skill to the concert hall.
At times he plays with great delicacy, almost a tenderness, and at others with percussive strength. The lower register buzzes like a giant bumblebee that really wants to sing opera.
Orhon’s ovations from audience and orchestra were well deserved. Hopefully, Hankewich will feature this fine performer on a regular basis. The double bass is undergoing a renaissance, with the leadership of performers Gary Karr and Edgar Meyer.
The second half of the concert is devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which Hankewich proclaims is one of his favorites. Entering into this musical world is similar to involvement with a great painting like Picasso’s “Guernica” or a great novel like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” There is a completeness about the emotional architecture of all these powerful works, offering a deeply satisfying experience to the participant.
Beethoven’s seventh is the ultimate symphonic horse race. The galloping motif is repeated over and over, with stunning variety in its effects. The finale is exhilarating. Audience members leapt to their feet, as if just in time for a photo finish. Just when you think you’ve reached the finish line, it pops up again in the distance, and you race on even faster.
We are given over to the composer’s enormous skill, and the orchestra’s virile reading of the work.
This work is one of the finest of orchestral achievements, all the more remarkable in that Beethoven composed it in 1813, when his hearing was all but gone. By 1814, Beethoven was profoundly deaf.
Even more amazing is that the work is so very uplifting, so affirmative of the joy of the life. Wagner wrote that “this symphony is the very apotheosis of the dance. It is dance in its highest being.” This despite the agony of a genius losing the ability to hear his own music. Beethoven could no longer perform on the piano, but he continued to compose for the remaining 14 years of his life.
The second movement is a funeral march, and perhaps he poured his sadness into this section. It is one of the most exquisite pieces of music ever written, somber and beautiful and powerful all at once.
Such masterworks test an orchestra’s mettle. Orchestra Iowa is up to the challenge.
So, Chuck Berry, we won’t be asking Beethoven to “roll over,” nor will we “tell Tchaikovsky the news.” They left you behind a long time ago.
What: Orchestra Iowa: “Beauty & Beethoven:
Cedar Rapids: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (11/9), Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; $19 to $49, Orchestraiowa.org
Mason City: 3 p.m. Sunday, (11/10), North Iowa Area Community College; $25 advance, $30 door, 1-(888) 466-4222, Ext. 4188 or Niacc.edu/boxoffice