Iowa Symphonies Evolve to Survive

Jan 23, 2014

When Barney Sherman started planning his career in classical music, his supervisor told him, “Don’t even think about it, classical music is dying…the stations are closing, everyone’s looking for another career, it’s over.” But, 23 years later, Sherman is a Senior Music Producer at Iowa Public Radio, and Iowa’s classical industry is thriving.

Not that Iowa’s symphonies have not gone through some evolution.

Tim Hankewich, Music Director of Orchestra Iowa, said that when he first started, he thought the craft was just about focusing on the music and communicating with the orchestra.

“And while that is still true, I found more and more now that it’s about how you get the art to the stage and how you advocate for it to your audiences,” said Hankewich.

Iowa’s largest symphonies, including Orchestra Iowa, wcfsymphony, the Des Moines Symphony, and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, are all working on getting art to stage in unconventional formats.

In Des Moines, the orchestra recently collaborated on a work called “Symphony in Sculpture,” a work that portrays in music the nine sculptures featured in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines.  Orchestra Iowa started an artistic partnership with Ballet Quad Cities.

“In the era we live in now, there’s constant entertainment to offer…so for us, the product we put forth in the concert hall has to be able to compete for people’s time and attention,” said Jason Weinberger, Artistic Director and CEO of wcfsymphony.

wcfsymphony with Brandi Carlile and band
Credit wcfsymphony

Weinberger has worked on incorporating more popular music into the classical format. He often tours with country folk singer, Brandi Carlile, who sings over the background of a traditional orchestra.

With progress often comes resistance, however, and some in the classical community dislike change in format. Talk of Iowa listener Steven Lipshutz said that at Des Moines Symphony concerts, some of the audience discouraged active participation, and even gave his wife dirty looks for tapping her foot.

Joseph Giunta, Music Director of the Des Moines Symphony, said it is a delicate balance between pleasing the more traditional and newer crowds, but it is a transition happening at orchestra concerts all over the U.S.

"I'm not a purist,” said Giunta. “If people want to express their eagerness, providing it doesn’t disturb someone else, I think it's a great thing."

As the Minnesota Orchestra comes out of the longest labor dispute in American symphony history, Iowa’s symphonies continue to succeed. It seems to be due to a combination of the orchestras’ payment structure (musicians being paid “per service” rather than salaried), music education for Iowa’s youth (Quad City Symphony Director Mark Russell Smith frequents schools on a regular basis), and the energy of the conductor and his or her musicians.

And to top it off, Iowa’s symphony orchestras are not afraid to jump into the unknown and try something new.

"Music is not a museum piece; it is a living breathing art form,” said Hankewich.