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REVIEW: Orchestra Iowa romances various tellings of 'Romeo and Juliet'

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:53 pm   ::  

CEDAR RAPIDS -- Orchestra Iowa's celebration of Valentine's Day, "Star-Crossed Lovers," is yet another successful evening at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.

The focus on orchestral renderings of William Shakespeare's "Romeo And Juliet" worked well, reflecting the always sharp-eyed, always marketable programming of Music Director Timothy Hankewich.

Maestro Hankewich delivered a very tightly played, nuanced evening of music-making. I particularly appreciated his inclusion of Grinnell College professor Eric McIntyre's "Drive By." It is a brief, angry fragment of orchestral music, echoing all the violence that drive-by shootings imply. We hear the car coming, and want to duck under our seats as the explosions erupt in the percussion and brass sections of the orchestra. Contemporary orchestral music of quality is hard to come by these days, and the reaching out of Hankewich to a talented young composer is admirable.

The orchestra's brass section also has a field day in Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." This well-known music has been with us since 1957, and the composer's work with young lyricist Steven Sondheim was as good as it has ever gotten for a Broadway musical. I enjoyed the finger-snapping in the orchestra, as well as the full-throated "mambo" from orchestra members. At one point the string sections jump to their feet, and the conductor does a pirouette. This conductor is, thank goodness, a showman. Classical music does not have to put its audience to sleep.

The evening began with Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," which is the choice of many a ballet choreographer, including MacMillan, Nureyev, Morris and Ratmansky. It tells the story scene by scene, and the Orchestra presented four of those, including the balcony scene and the death of Tybalt at the hands of Mercutio. The music has always been, since it was first performed in 1938, powerful and dramatic. It digs deep into the young romance of the story and the highly emotional war between the Montagues and the Capulets, as well as the violence that results in the deaths of the young lovers.

The agonizing depths of this play, which first appeared in London in 1595, are explored brilliantly by the composer. And this depth was realized beautifully by Orchestra Iowa.

Prokoviev was trained in St. Petersburg, as was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky's version of "Romeo And Juliet" first appeared in 1886. It is rather a quieter version of the story, celebrating romance and the mourning of the death of the lovers. The composition does not go scene by scene, but is an overall expression of the strong feelings that drive Shakespeare's play.

The performance of this work tested the Paramount's new acoustics. The welcome renovation allows both conductor and orchestra to reach for soft, subtle effects.

Congratulations to all concerned for a thoughtful evening. Think of the range of centuries represented on the stage, as our culture thrives. Many a community the size of Cedar Rapids has been struggling to sustain an orchestra: ours is doing just fine.

(The concert repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at West High School in Iowa City.)


Related: Orchestra Iowa explores ‘Romeo & Juliet’ through the ages