Hoopla

Holiday sights & sounds: Orchestra Iowa shines spotlight on local musicians

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

The Paramount Theatre will be filled with seasonal splendor Saturday (12/15) and Sunday (12/16) for Orchestra Iowa’s annual Holiday Spectacular.
Cliff Jette/The Gazette The Paramount Theatre will be filled with seasonal splendor Saturday (12/15) and Sunday (12/16) for Orchestra Iowa’s annual Holiday Spectacular.
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Nothing makes Tim Hankewich break a sweat in the summer like planning Orchestra Iowa’s annual cool yule offerings. So he works at making it fun for himself, the musicians, their guests and their listeners.

“Holiday programs are the hardest thing that I do professionally,” he said, “because the arrangements that are in public domain (and not subject to copyright fees) aren’t very good, and the good ones are played to death. And so there is the danger of over-repetition.

“I keep it fun for myself by arranging during the summers, or in this case, collaborating with local artists.”

This year, he turned to Steve Shanley of Cedar Rapids, who wears many musical hats: being a jazz educator from middle school to collegiate levels, directing the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band; directing the Coe College Jazz Band and teaching there; organizing jazz festivals and workshops; playing piano in numerous Eastern Iowa jazz ensembles and big bands; and composing and arranging music, with more than 1,000 of his works performed at home and abroad.

“Steve Shanley has really gone to town for us,” Hankewich said. “He’s brilliant — one of the best musicians I’ve ever met.”

The concerts gather together a multitude of local talent for performances Saturday (12/15) afternoon and evening and Sunday (12/16) afternoon at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“We’re continuing a trend that we started last year, by featuring a local headlining artist,” Hankewich said. “Last year it was Eddie Piccard, and this year, it’s the great Lynne Rothrock. In each case, they were able to bring something new to the table in terms of their own approach and taste in music.”

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Fresh off her own Christmas Cabaret the previous weekend, Rothrock will be bringing several style twists to the orchestra concert, from country to swing.

“One of the challenges on our end is to create arrangements tailored to these artists,” Hankewich said, and that’s where he and Shanley come onboard.

The process includes determining the proper range for the singer, keeping in mind that “the particular key you write in has orchestral implications,” as well, Hankewich said. “And then the next question is style. Sometimes you listen to a recording, and that has a style, or you make a decision of doing a piece in a completely different style, so then you don’t have a template to work off.

“This season, we have examples of both, where some of the arrangements are fairly close to the recording, and some are just completely new interpretations,” he said. “When you have the luxury of making a custom arrangement, you also want to take advantage of the strengths of your artist.”

And sometimes the singer surprises the director with suggestions.

“(Rothrock) is performing ‘Come on Ring Those Bells,’ which is a piece I’d never heard of before,” Hankewich said. “It kinda has a nice country flavor to it. We’re also doing an Irish carol that’s rarely performed in this part of the country, that’s going to be up-tempo and a lot of fun — she is a fiery redhead, after all. The second half has a lot more swing in its approach.”

Among those choices are “Cool Yule,” made famous by Louis Armstrong; Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Jingle Bells,” and Sheryl Crow’s original ballad, “There is a Star that Shines Tonight,” which Hankewich deemed “a gorgeous piece.”

“I love it that she brought new ideas to the table,” he said of Rothrock, “because some of these carols I’ve never heard before.”

Rothrock also is looking forward to the weekend gig, proposed a year ago. She jumped at the chance, even though it meant moving her own cabaret show up a week, out of its traditional slot on the busy holiday concert calendar.

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“I’ve been wanting to sing with a symphony for a long time,” she said. “I’m delighted to be doing that. ... I think it will be really fun and totally different.

“It is one of those huge extravaganza kind of shows, which will make it really different from the cabaret, but I’m pleased. I love singing with strings. I’ve done a little bit of singing with large symphonies, but not much and not enough, for what I’d like to be doing. ...

“I’m very excited about it,” she said. “I’m so pleased that they asked me.”

She knows Hankewich mostly from the times she’s performed in the Paramount building’s Opus Concert Cafe.

“He just seems really fun,” she said. “He’s not stodgy — we all think of orchestra conductors sometimes as being very stodgy — he’s willing to play. He’s already told me that I’m free to talk to the audience and tease with him if I want to. ...

“I love that he asked, I love that he has said, ‘We’re hiring you, so we want you to be you,’ which is awesome,” she said. “That’s not always the case, and you want to make sure you’re fitting the slot people hired you for.”

Other community performers in the spotlight will be the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale; Discovery Chorus from the Orchestra Iowa School; Espressivo Strings from Iowa City’s Preucil School; the Carillonneurs handbell choir from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids; and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which will be woven into the program as well as during the intermission.

“They are all so very good,” Hankewich said.

He noted that the concert setting is especially great for the youth ensembles.

“It’s not only appropriate because this is the time of year for children, but it fulfills an educational mandate for the orchestra,” he said. “It’s not often that young people get to perform with orchestras ... and explore their repertoire.”

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Some of that repertoire will be especially tricky for the orchestra’s elite instrumentalists, as well.

“It’s easy to come into rehearsal thinking this will be an easy Christmas show,” Hankewich said, “but I make sure a couple of the arrangements in there are very challenging for them. It keeps them engaged and brings an extra degree of professionalism to the production. ... It’s not just a bunch of whole notes and background string harmonies.”

Get OuT

WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Holiday Spectacular

WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (12/15), 2:30 p.m. Sunday (12/16)

TICKETS: $18 to $55, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com

EXTRAS: Have cookies with Santa an hour before each concert

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