CEDAR FALLS -- In truth, our fair state has hosted little of national renown in music history (the Surf Ballroom excepted). However, Iowa had a few moments in the sun back in 1893, an event that was celebrated by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, led by artistic director and conductor Jason Weinberger, as well as by artist Gary Kelley.
The well-attended concert at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center was preceded in the lobby by pieces from the UNI Suzuki Strings, directed by Todd Williams, and by pre-concert remarks on stage by new General Manager Rich Frevert.
The plot, in brief, concerns composer Antonin Dvorak (pronunciation digression — first, I’m leaving out the diacritical marks in his surname. Second, it’s pronounced, roughly, as “Duh-VOAR-jacque(s)” (as in the French name). Our substitute tympanist of a few concerts ago, however, uses the American pronunciation — Duh-VOAR-ack.)
Dvorak (1841-1904) is a giant of 19th century music, and the most beloved composer of what is now the Czech Republic. Most American concertgoers are familiar with only three of his works — the Ninth (“New World”) Symphony, the Cello Concerto and the sets of Slavonic Dances. He wrote, however, a vast array of pieces, which bubble over with endless inspiration from what may be the most melodious country in the world.
In 1892, Dvorak arrived in New York to assume a position as director of the National Conservatory of Music, with the idea that he would spearhead an American school of composition. In 1893, he was induced to spend the summer in Spillville, Iowa, one of a number of Czech colonies in our state. His stay resulted in a number of new compositions, as well as a new understanding of American life and culture as it was, that indeed generated an impetus to new music based on American themes, before his return to Czechoslovakia in 1895.
Spillville (present population 367) maintains a fascinating Dvorak museum, on the second floor of a building whose ground floor hosts the Bily Clock Museum, an astonishing display of intricate clocks carved by two farmer brothers (I found this more interesting than the Dvorak museum, actually). Dvorak is said to have completed the “New World” symphony on the upper floor, where he stayed. The town lies 66 miles north of Waterloo, and offers a rewarding day trip from the Cedar Valley — highly recommended.
Enter the wcysmphony and Gary Kelley, an internationally respected illustrator, who has blessed our area with his decision to remain living in Cedar Falls, despite the continuing world-wide demand for his work. He partnered with Weinberger and the symphony to create “To The New World,” featuring his drawings of Dvorak’s trip from his homeland to Spillville, all accompanied by some of the composer’s orchestral pieces.
The art was projected on a screen above the orchestra, making for excellent viewing of the artwork, but muffling the orchestra somewhat, and hiding at least the last row of musicians from viewers in the mezzanine and up.
I thought the project was highly successful and emotionally moving. To me, Kelley’s work is quickly recognizable, with its soft edges, chalky textures and comforting pastels, which appear with endless creativity. Kelley started in Prague, the jewel-like capital city of the composer, and gave us both the fabled architecture and glimpses of the swirling Bohemian folk dances of the area (my wife, a former dance professor, sighed to me about one image, “Ooh, I’d love to have the original drawing of that dancer!”).
The production of the artwork was astonishing — the images moved on screen in various directions, and through differing super-impositions. The show was entirely in images, with no printed words (I believe there may have been some written orientation at the beginning, missed by many of us getting to our seats). The textless visuals allowed one’s interpretation free reign.
Kelley followed Dvorak and his family on the transatlantic voyage, through his explorations of New York City, and on his journey by train by cart to Spillville. The visuals of the composer’s time in the village dealt with two themes: country life (cows were prominent), and the minority communities (non-existent in Spillville) from whom Dvorak exhorted his American students to draw musical inspiration — African-Americans and Native Americans. Representations of Native-Americans with hands raised heavenward in supplication were followed by African-Americans in similar positions, allowing one to sense the struggles of the very peoples whose musical ideas we were to appropriate. I would have enjoyed more depiction of Spillville itself, but found the flashbacks to Prague arresting, as though the settlers had kept their cultural homeland alive in memory.
All of this was accompanied by the music of Dvorak, divided into stand-alone movements, some quite unfamiliar. We heard three movements of “The New World,” in which Rebecca Kimpton masterfully rendered the iconic English horn solo of the slow movement. In the first movement of the symphony, which opened the concert, the orchestra was joined by members of the North Iowa Youth Orchestra (whose leader is John Chiles). In addition were played a movement of the Czech Suite in D, two Slavonic Dances, a bit of the Prague Waltzes, two movements of the little-known American Suite in A and a movement of the 8th Symphony.
The audience enthusiastically cheered the performance. Should you be wondering if this and other multi-media presentations by the symphony (and Kelley) will appear but once, the answer is hopefully “no.” I will loosely repeat Weinberger’s answer to my question about future presentations:
Jason produced this collaboration exclusively for his own production company (“The New Live”), which is hired by the symphony to provide all tech and video production. His collaborator in the business is technical director Jacob Meade, who deserves wholehearted praise for superlative creativity. Since they are aligned with the symphony, The New Live works on a vastly reduced fee scale on these projects to make it affordable for the symphony to present this level of technical sophistication.
The production company also markets its expertise to other orchestras, and has an agreement with Gary Kelley to market his work as an option. One of the Kelley/wcfsymphony collaborations has already been performed with the Boulder Philharmonic, and another is coming up in Alexandria, Va. Plans are afoot to bring the collaborations to orchestras around the country and to young people’s concerts. My prediction is that they will meet with success.
Generous donors made this concert possible — thanks are due to The Courier, the Gallagher Family Foundation, Friendship Village, Poonah and Matt Glascock, Heartland Financial, Humble Travel, Gary Kelley Travelers, KWAY, Lincoln Savings Bank, Steve and Jan Moore, Iowa Public Radio, and the McElroy Trust
Next on the symphony’s schedule will be two concerts in the Brown Derby Ballroom in Waterloo on May 11 (the concerts postponed from March), which will feature music from Vienna’s fascination with their near neighbor Turkey and its music.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music of UNI, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.