CEDAR RAPIDS -- "He's a good explainer," the little boy behind me said to his daddy after the final Brucemorchestra bows Sunday night (9/8/13).
He's right. Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich has such an easy and conversational way of welcoming the multigenerational crowd, letting us know what we were going to hear with each piece, cluing us in on the history and pop cultural uses of the themes.
About 2,500 audience members blanketed Brucemore's massive front lawn, all the way up to the historic 1886 Queen Anne mansion's front porch for the orchestra's sixth annual season kickoff.
Picnics plain and fancy dotted the landscape, breezes seemed to blow on cue and little girls in their party dresses danced -- appropriately -- to the opening number, Alexander Borodin's "Polovestian Dances" from his opera, "Prince Igor." Those of us a little older instantly recognized the recurring theme that became "Strangers in Paradise" in the 1953 Broadway musical, "Kismet."
The gentleman next to me, Cedar Rapids native Doug Lane, who left after high school more than 40 years ago and now lives in Malibu, couldn't believe the elegant evening unfolding before him in his hometown. He said he always checks The Gazette to see what's happening when he's back for a visit, but this was his first time attending Brucemorchestra. He said he had no idea thousands of people would flock to the estate for a concert. (I brought him up to speed on Bluesmore, the Classics, Balloon Glow and other such fabulous annual events there.)
He likened it to Chicago's Ravinia Festival, deeming the evening "spectacular." And indeed, it was.
This is my favorite event of the year, a concert necessitated by the 2008 floods that silenced the Paramount Theatre and sent the orchestra looking for alternate venues. I'm so glad Brucemorchestra has become a tradition, as much a part of the fabric of the city as of the mansion or the orchestra itself.
It's the maestro's favorite concert, too. "It shows that live music really matters," he said in his opening remarks.
He spoke openly and often throughout the event, sometimes even between movements. It's generally considered a concert no-no to applaud between movements, but Hankewich welcomes it and has never tried to shush spontaneous bursts of appreciation for the music and musicians. I know "the rules," but applauded right along with everyone else -- the performances were that magnificent.
"Polovestian Dances" was the perfect to open the evening, with all the pomp and celebratory circumstance we've come to expect of these concerts, which showcase symphonic works that appeal to casual and die-hard audiences alike.
The first movement is all light and breezy, as the flutes merrily chase the solo clarinet. The second movement, set in the courtyard of the mighty Khan Konchak, begins with the slaves lamenting their loss of homeland and freedom. The combined voices of the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale and Coe and Mount Mercy student choirs rose magnificently through the familiar loveliness of the "Strangers in Paradise" melody. The miking was so well done that we could hear all the sweet strings, angelic sopranos and harp pluckings floating through the humid night air.
The mood changed abruptly as the voices rose to herald the fearsome Khan's arrival. (In his audience notes, the hilarious Hankewich informed us this ruler was so unstoppable that the only time he was defeated was in the second "Star Trek" movie, "The Wrath of Khan.")
The low woodwinds and strings built to a frenzy, leading to the crash of bass drum and a huge choral fanfare. Then they were off on a robust gallop before abruptly switching back to the gorgeous and lush instrumentation of the "Strangers in Paradise" theme, leading back to a choral bombast, leading back to a full pomp and pompous celebratory crash of orchestra. What a fun ride for audience, instruments and vocalists.
The concert's second work was simply beautiful, in the most complex and intricate of ways.
Orchestra Iowa's principal pianist, Miko Kominami, was ravishing in her interpretation of Sergi Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18. This is a breathtaking work written by an accomplished pianist and stellar 20th century composer in the Russian Romanticism tradition.
The three-movement piece is not only a major accomplishment challenging any highly trained pianist, but Kominami played it all from memory -- outdoors, under the lights on a hot summer night. All of the glorious arpeggios and cadenzas showcased her sheer mastery of technique, and her artistry flowed from her heart through her fingertips. This is a massive achievement for any performer and I'm so glad one of the orchestra's own players was given this spotlight.
From Kominami’s dramatic opening solo through the passion building through the strings and brass, the first movement ebbed and flowed with ardor. The second movement was more contemplative, with the violins quietly supporting the flute and piano duet, moving through a more mysterious minor key, giving way to lush and beautiful strings through which we could clearly hear the sounds echoed in Eric Carmen's 1975 hit ballad, "All By Myself." That movement fades quietly into the night, before the final movement, in which mischievous low strings and brass usher in a piano solo with harp-like quality..
Dramatic flourishes across the orchestra surrounded Kominami's impeccable, fiery precision sweeping up and down the entire keyboard before ending with a dramatic, exotic burst propelling audience members to their feet. Wild applause, whistles and shouts of "brava" pierced the air.
The concert ended as dramatically as it began, with what Hankewich described as a "hellfire and brimstone brass fanfare" ushering in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. The works' four movements showcased each orchestra section and each piece was so stellar that we couldn't help but applaud between each movement.
That's the beauty of Brucemorchestra. We get to hear stunning symphonic sounds that all level of listeners can eagerly embrace, in an environment where the rules fly away with the sun.