Iowa Orchestras Make Music - about Iowa

Mar 18, 2014

Iowa's orchestras are commissioning works about Iowa; but how can music without words convey anything about a place? Some examples:

  • For its 75th anniversary in 2012, the Des Moines Symphony commissioned Steve Heitzig's Symphony in Sculpture [available on DVD]. Each movements is a musical meditation on a statue in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines. Here's a video story by my Iowa Public Radio colleague John Pemble 
  • In 2013, Orchestra Iowa commissioned Cedar Rapids' celebrated musical son Michael Daugherty to write a piece inspired by its renowned artistic son, Grant Wood. Daugherty called the work American Gothic; he was inspired not only by Wood but also by "the years when I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as the oldest of five sons in the Daugherty family." [A CD is being produced- watch this space!]
  • In 2013, WCFSymphony performed Jonathan Chenette's Rural Symphony, a musical evocation of the Iowa landscape.
  • And, on March 8, 2014, the Quad City Symphony premiered a work it commissioned from the young Quad City composer Jacob Bancks that's all about the Quads. It's called Rock Island Line and refers not only to the song, but also to the sounds of trains, the Mississippi River, and more. Intrigued? Here's my phone interview with Bancks about how he created it:

Ever since instrumental music rose to prominence,  composers have sought to evoke places with it. In the Baroque era, composers associated musical  styles with nationalities, just as we associate tango with Argentina or bluegrass with Appalachia.  Baroque musicians were fascinated with the "French" style developed by musicians at the Bourbon court and with the "Italian" styles associated with Corelli in Rome and with the very different Vivaldi in Venice. Bach, for example, published an "Overture in the French Style" and an "Italian Concerto," both for keyboard. There are even works by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Meder that quote Polish folk music they heard on the streets in Silesia.

Romantic composers explored a different kind of connection between music and locale, in their "tone poems" meant to capture the feeling of a place. One of my favorites is Mendelssohn's Hebrides overture. It does not quote Scottish tunes (Mendelssohn detested folk music) but instead conveys the mystery that Scotland held for the Romantics. Not that Romantics neglected folk music: on the contrary, as nationalism took root, composers went to town with it. Sometimes they explored their own country's folk dances (as in Chopin's Mazurkas and Polonaises), sometimes someone else's (as in Chabrier's Espana or Brahm's Hungarian Dances, which are directly based on Roma tunes), but throughout the Romantic era, folk styles carried a lot of expressive water.

The composers writing for Iowa's orchestras use, basically, all of the above methods. For example, the first movement in Heitzeg's Symphony explores a sculpture by Ugo Rondinone, who is Swiss; Heitzeg says that is why he "scattered the ring of cowbells throughout the movement," and that they allude not only to Alpine herds but also to Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which also uses cowbells. The sculpture is titled Moonrise. east. january, and Heitzeg responds musically by opening with "a slow, pre-dawn fanfare and procession" marked "Night Ritual."

At one point in our interview, Jacob Bancks talks about how he evokes the Mississippi River.  

Composer Jacob Bancks (of Augustana College in the Quad Cities)

He did not want his Mississippi to sound like Smetana's Moldau, a deeply moving depiction of Bohemia's great river. (Ironically, Smetana borrowed the Moldau's main tune from Swedish folk music, but never mind.) Bancks's piece also refers to the jazz of Quad Cities native Bix Beiderbecke and to the sounds of trains. More than that, he tries to capture that expansive feeling you get when you look out over the Quad Cities -an experience everyone should make a point of having! I find it indescribable (it's part of why I love the Quads), and I can't wait to hear how Bancks makes us feel it in his music. Stay tuned: when the music goes public, we'll link to it!   [UPDATE: Here's a link where you can hear it!]

Meanwhile, here's the Moldau, performed by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Rafael Kubelik  at the 1990 Prague Spring Festival. I can't think of  better example of the power of music to evoke a place and its history. Kubelik, one of the giants of Czech music, had in 1945 led the Philharmonic's first concert after World War II (he had gone underground in 1944 to evade the Gestapo), and in 1946 had co-founded the Prague Spring Festival. But since the Communist coup of 1948 he had boycotted his native land. Health problems caused him to retire from conducting in 1985, but after the Soviet collapse he felt it principled to conduct in his homeland again, so he accepted the orchestra's invitation to lead the first post-communist festival. On the program, of course, was Smetana's My Homeland; the Moldau is its second movement. I can only imagine how Kubelik felt to be in this space again with this orchestra under these circumstances, or how the musicians felt to be working with an artist who must have been a legend to them throughout their careers. Can we see some of it in their faces, or hear it in their playing? You be the judge: