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Home / Dubuque native returns with commissioned work for Orchestra Iowa concerts
Dubuque native returns with commissioned work for Orchestra Iowa concerts
Pulitzer-nominated Michael Gilbertson captures wind’s energy in world premiere piece
Orchestra Iowa is planning a reverie of past, present and future for the “American Dreams” concerts coming to the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, Feb. 17, and the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night, Feb. 18, 2023.
The world premiere of an original piece is a dream weaving between orchestra and composer — a commissioned work by Dubuque native Michael Gilbertson.
If you go
What: Orchestra Iowa presents “American Dreams”
Coralville: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.; $18 to $47
Cedar Rapids: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; $17 to $58
Tickets: Including student pricing details, ArtsIowa Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, (319) 366-8203 or artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/american-dreams/
Insights: Discussions 6:30 p.m. Friday at West Music, across from the Coralville concert venue; 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the Paramount’s Encore Lounge; free to ticket holders
Composer Conversation: 2 p.m. Feb. 16, Perrine Gallery at Stewart Memorial Library, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids; with Michael Gilbertson, Maestro Timothy Hankewich and composer Jerry Owen; reception follows; free admission
Artist’s website: michaelgilbertson.net/
Now living in San Francisco, Gilbertson, 35, has been creating pieces for Eastern Iowa ensembles since he was in high school, and served as the composer-in-residence for Red Cedar Chamber Music from 2011 to 2014. He went on to earn degrees from the Juilliard School and Yale University, and his pieces have been performed by ensembles around the world.
In 2018, his “Quartet” composition was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The nomination was “very exciting, of course, and very unexpected as well,” Gilbertson said by phone from his home. “You have no idea, really, if your piece is even being considered before the results are announced.”
Such acclaim has a two-note affect.
“It raises people’s awareness of your work,” he said, “but also as an artist, something like that just gives you more confidence in what you’re doing.”
Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich has taken notice of Gilbertson’s career trajectory, having performed one of his pieces in the past, and wanted him back to compose for the orchestra’s centennial celebration.
“The theme for our 100th anniversary is ‘100 years into our future,’ and I wanted to capture our past, present and future in the repertoire that we chose for the season,” Hankewich said. “Michael Gilbertson certainly represents our present and future.
“Any time you commission a new work, you are sending a love letter to our future selves — sort of a musical message in a bottle. In 2010 we performed a student piece of his titled ‘Vigil,’ that left quite a lasting impression on me.
“Back then, he was already garnering a lot of attention as a leading voice of the future, which has only been confirmed and underscored as his career has developed and flourished,” Hankewich said.
“We all love Cedar Rapids' favorite son, Michael Daugherty, whose music we will feature during our fifth Masterworks concert. And Michael Gilbertson … is continuing this happy tradition of developing highly accomplished and world-recognized composers from Iowa.”
Gilbertson said Hankewich contacted him about a year ago to create a commissioned piece that would not only reflect Iowa, but have a broader appeal, as well.
The seed was planted last summer. As Gilbertson was flying to the East Coast, he had a clear view of the Iowa landscape from the plane.
“I recognized a lot of things on the ground,” he said. “I could see the Cedar River, I could see I-80, and I could see so clearly all of the wind farms across the state. From above, I was really stunned by how many there were. And so I thought it’d be interesting to write a piece inspired by wind and the idea of generating power from wind. …
“There's some really impressive figures about how much wind power is generated,” he said.
According to the Iowa Environmental Council, “Iowa is a national leader in wind energy, producing the highest percentage of electricity produced by wind — over 57 percent (2022) — of any state. Iowa is the first state to generate more than 57 percent of its electricity with wind power. Iowa also ranks second nationally in the amount of wind energy installed with 12,219 MW (2021).”
Gilbertson was aware of the derecho that tore through Cedar Rapids, but that wasn’t the impetus for his 10-minute piece, simply titled “Wind.”
“The piece starts with gentle breezes that slowly build up into really powerful gusts,” he said. “That’s sort of the arc of the piece. And then I tried to capture the sound of wind or a kind of musical essence of wind, using a few special effects in the orchestra.”
“The idea of ‘Wind’ was entirely his own inspiration, which serendipitously complements the first commission we featured in our season — Jerry Owen’s ‘Towering Oaks,’ ” Hankewich noted. “In that case, Jerry's music was inspired by the resiliency of our local trees in the wake of the derecho. …
“(Gilbertson’s) musical description of wind is far more gentle, filled with beautiful shifts of color — a timbre that really engages the ear, inspiring the audience to crave what sonic delights lie ahead in the next measure,” Hankewich said.
“He uses percussion and blowing techniques in the woodwinds and brass to mimic the sounds of wind, but the effect is not used as a crutch. He uses it in a manner that complements and vivifies the musical textures swirling around it. I love it and I hope the audience will appreciate it as much as I do.”
More happy returns
Gilbertson is happy to be coming to Cedar Rapids for the orchestra’s rehearsals and concerts.
“It's always great to come back to Iowa and work with musicians there,” he said. “That's where I first developed as a composer. So it's wonderful to be back with some of those same musicians and in some of the same places.”
He also expects to see family and friends in the audiences, including his parents, Jim and Bernita Gilbertson of Dubuque.
Hankewich is thrilled to have Gilbertson here, as well.
“We have the benefit of the composer being part of the rehearsal process, so there is no mystery when it comes to his intent,” Hankewich said. “No matter how detailed the score, there often are vagaries and questions that pop up that only the composer can definitively address.
“What’s exciting for us is that the orchestra’s discovery of this piece will have occurred only days before our audiences — and indeed the world — get to hear it for the first time. There is no baggage or preconceived notions as to what the piece should sound like,” Hankewich added. “As a result it’s quite a liberating experience for the orchestra to play new music, which inspires us to revisit the standard repertoire with fresh eyes and ears.”
Rounding out the program are “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” by Richard Rodgers; “Delights & Dances,” by Michael Abels, featuring the Harlem Quartet; “A Tramp in the Assembly Line,” by Jihyun Kim; and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” by Leonard Bernstein.
All of these pieces align past with present, giving a nod to the movies.
“I wanted to capitalize on the fact the Steven Spielberg just made a remake of 'West Side Story’ over the summer,” Hankewich said, “and another film about the life of Bernstein is currently in production. …
“The other two works that represent our present also have links to the silver screen. Michael Abels, who is the go-to composer for all of Jordan Peele’s cinematic thrillers, has fashioned this fabulous piece that will feature the Harlem String Quartet, which in turn was inspired by blues and American fiddle tradition with a decidedly more modern twist.
“Jihyun Kim created a work loosely inspired by Charlie Chaplin and his film ‘Modern Times.’ Her piece titled ‘Tramp in the Assembly Line’ evokes the rhythmical sounds of factory equipment, complete with a repetitive groove that is reminiscent of 1970s funk,” Hankewich noted.
“So in every case — past, present, future — these pieces reflect the influences of American popular music as artistically translated into a symphonic medium, and in the case of the newer works on the program, reinvents older classic American styles in new contexts to create an American sound of the future.”
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