Concert review: wcfsymphony takes us there...

Apr 9, 2014

Iowa's amazing classical  month continues with Trio 826 in Cedar Falls and Rock Island (watch this space), the Des Moines Symphony in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Violin Concerto this weekend, Bach's St. John Passion in the Quad Cities on Sunday, the Fry Street Quartet in Iowa City, the Iowa City Community String Orchestra's spring concert on Sunday, and a repeat -this time in the Quad Cities - of the collaboration of  Orchestra Iowa & Ballet Quad Cities on new productions of The Rite of Spring and Appalachian Spring. And more (see our events calendar).

Last weekend, I attended the wcfsymphony's concert in Cedar Falls and loved it. Here are some impressions - which I share  as encouragement, just in case you're thinking of attending one of the upcoming events.

The theme was "architecture," but for me it was like a journey to three specific places. First, the brass took us to Renaissance Venice by way of  Gabrielli canzons. Next came an enchanting new oboe concerto by composer Brooke Joyce of Luther College in Decorah, called Une Cite Moderne. The title comes from a 1921 set of drawings ("A Modern City") by Parisian architect Robert Mallet-Stevens; Joyce intended for the work to take us to Paris in that year.

Composer Brooke Joyce of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

He evoked each drawing by imagining how a French composer of the time (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, et al.) might have responded to it. Those associations are part of how the work "took us" to France musically, yet the whole piece was also in Joyce's unique voice.  I loved it and also the playing of solo oboist Heather ArmstrongAnd so, it seemed, did everyone else: the audience response was the opposite of tepid or polite; in fact, it's no exaggeration to say that the crowd went wild! I can't wait to hear the broadcast on IPR's Symphonies of Iowa on May 4-5. There you'll also hear the engaging spoken introduction  - for example, when Jason Weinberger asked Joyce what it was like to hear the piece rehearsed this week. Joyce replied that he's unusual for a composer of his age [41] in that he doesn't use software to compose, so the rehearsals were  where he first heard how it really sounded (hope he was pleased - to my ears, the sounds were beautiful and evocative).

Then came Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, in Erwin Stein's reduction (same scoring, fewer instruments). For me, it was bliss -  and again it took me to a definite place and time, because it was light on its feet in a specifically rural Eastern European way. That's what I feel Mahler had in his imagination when writing this work, and what I think I hear in Mahler's piano roll performance of the song that was the seed of the theme of the first movement, and also in his assistant Bruno Walter's recording from 1939 (way faster than he conducted it later in his life). In the second movement Saturday night, the wcfsymphony players sounded as if they actually dance Austrian landlers in their spare time, and in the klezmer-band section in the third movement the players sounded as if they had wandered in from a rural Hapsburg village (the musicologist Jonathan Bellman tells me the passage actually refers to Czech-village brass band music).  Also, more than usual I was able to hear Mahler's sheer genius as a composer - musical things I sometimes fail to register - and I credit the performers. 

In short, it was a great evening. Can you see why I hope you'll find time to go to at least one concert this weekend?  (BTW: here is Bruno Walter conducting the Mahler First in 1939 - it really does sound better in person, but still, what a historical document!):