REVIEW: Brucemorchestra kicks up its heels

Orchestra Iowa launches season with classical hoedown under the stars

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Orchestra Iowa wished Grant Wood a happy birthday in a most majestic way.

With all the pomp and circumstance befitting Eastern Iowa’s most famous son, Brucemorchestra lassoed symphonic roots music for a two-hour Americana extravaganza Saturday night on the front lawn at Brucemore.

When the weather has cooperated in the past, audience numbers have topped 4,000. The tally will likely be the same this year, with gorgeous weather beckoning people and their picnics from stage to mansion, tree line to driveway, filling nearly every nook and cranny.

Maestro Timothy Hankewich was ready for a hoedown, trading his white tie and tails for a kerchief and spurs. Beneath the relaxed exterior, however, burned a symphonic fire every bit as virtuosic as audiences expect from these masterful musicians.

The opening strains of Leroy Anderson’s “Chicken Reel” immediately evoke Saturday morning cartoon soundtracks, but quickly spin into serious stuff, still suitable for a barnyard strut. The composer’s cheeky humor was reflected on the big screens, beginning with images of cartoon chicks and ending with pieces of fried chicken, all finger-lickin’ good.

Choosing this piece to start the concert illustrates what Hankewich does best: programming works that display how accessible and fun orchestral offerings can be. Digital projections of trivia, photos and Grant Wood paintings accompanying each piece kept the tone light and breezy throughout.

A local cowboy quintet featuring leader Mike Maas and fiddler extraordinaire Carlis Faurot joined the hoedown to show how folk songs like “Git Along, Little Dogies” have been woven into the fabric of Aaron Copland’s celebrated “Billy the Kid” ballet, while “Down in the Valley” is tucked into Cedar Rapids native Michael Daugherty’s stellar “American Gothic.” Commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in 2013, it was most fitting to reprise it for the evening’s concert homage to Grant Wood.

Both works demand much of musicians, and Orchestra Iowa gave thrilling performances, mining the undulating flow of majesty and melody, dissonance and distress, bluegrass fiddling and syncopation.

Feeding off that energy, Maas and his band played all through the intermission, creating a lively buzz rippling through the crowd when Faurot tore into his signature “Orange Blossom Special.”

The tone turned regal in the second half, for Modest Mussorgsky’s elegant “Pictures at an Exhibition.” This piano suite orchestrated by Ravel, turns listeners into viewers strolling past artwork as wildly exciting and bombastic as the music of the Russian composer’s heritage.

Each section paints a distinct picture, threaded by a recurring theme, and was executed brilliantly by the various orchestra sections and soloists — especially in the brass and strings. A rousing finale with crashing gongs had audience members leaping to their feet in unison, in a shower of cheers.

Hankewich just happened to have an encore at the ready. It’s one he wrote for the occasion, blending the themes from “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke.” The opening strains sent the audience into a frenzy of whooping and dancing.

Maas and Friends came back to send the audience home with a spring in their step, helping create one of the most lively and enjoyable Brucemorchestra outings to date.

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