Orchestra Iowa’s final concert of the season Saturday night (6/1) is packed with giants — from its passionate beginnings to a rising star in the cello world and on to Gustav Mahler’s epic “Titan” first symphony.
“It’s always great to begin and end a season on a high,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich said. “When it comes to orchestral regalia, nothing is higher than the music of Mahler. It’s just a tour de force for the entire orchestra.
“It’s funny — the past few weeks have been an accelerating downhill run for the orchestra,” he said, in the wake of the Harry Potter pops concerts May 18 and 19, on the heels of the Brahms German Requiem concert May 4 and 5.
“It’s a misnomer to put music like (the Potter) on a ‘pops’ concert, because it is some of the most advanced concert writing there is for an orchestra,” he said. “It really put the orchestra through its paces.”
And this week, the ensemble was hired to play for the International Tuba Euphonium Convention at the University of Iowa, which began Monday (5/27) and concludes Saturday (6/1).
“Some of world’s leading artists in tuba and euphonium will be there, and the orchestra is performing some concertos with them, and it’s not easy either,” Hankewich said. “It’s just freakishly difficult, so by the time we get to the Mahler, which normally should be the hardest thing on the program, it’ll be like eating cake.”
Cake with a lot of icing.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, dubbed “Titan,” continues an ecumenical spiritual theme embraced in the Brahms Requiem performed at the beginning of May.
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“Every Mahler symphony is a musical depiction of the transmigration of the soul from the earthly to the heavenly,” Hankewich said. “The last movement is this unrelenting explosion of music that begins with desperation and ends with a loose quotation of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ — ‘and he shall reign forever and ever.’”
Mahler, born in 1860, in Bohemia, died in Vienna in 1911, at age 50. Like his mother, he had a weak heart, and illness and death plagued the family. He was the second of 14 children, only six of whom survived childhood. Historians speculate that the combination of his father’s cruelty to the family and all the illness and death he witnessed contributed to his fascination with mortality and life cycle themes.
But juxtaposed with his sophisticated waltzes and other courtly styles, were infusions of folk music, drinking songs he heard at his father’s tavern and the klezmer music of his Jewish heritage — all of which can be heard in the “Titan” symphony.
“I think it was shocking for audiences at the time,” Hankewich said, “because the music he was drawing on was so rustic and so lowbrow, that he would have the gall to throw that into such a high art form as the symphony orchestra — that’s what surprised so many critics of the day. And yet, that’s what makes him such a master today — elevating the everyday mundane to the sublime.”
The concert begins with Jennifer Higdon’s breakout piece, “blue cathedral,” a contemplative work written in memory of her brother.
Winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music and two Grammy Awards, Hankewich said that Higdon is “enjoying the most significant status as an international composer right now.” Performing her piece continues the orchestra’s “year of the woman” theme, in which every concert featured a female artist or composer.
In between the Higdon and Mahler lies Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody,” featuring guest cellist Zlatomir Fung. Now studying at the Juilliard School in New York, he won the 2018 Schoenfeld International String Competition, as well as many other major musical prizes.
“He’s a hot commodity right now,” Hankewich. “We had to strike while the iron’s hot and before he becomes too expensive for us to be able to bring him back.”
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Hankewich described the Bloch work as “the voice of the Jewish people,” and “so passionate you just can’t contain yourself.”
“It’s one of the most magnificent works I know,” he said.
If You Go
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Mahler’s “Titan”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (6/1)
TICKETS: $16 to $55, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com
YOUTH PRICES: Free grades K to 12 with paid adult; $10 college students with ID, at Paramount Ticket Office or (319) 366-8203
PROGRAM: Jennifer Higdon’S “blue cathedral”; Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody,” with cellist Zlatomir Fung; Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “Titan”
INSIGHTS: 6:45 p.m., Encore Lounge, informal discussion with Maestro Timothy Hankewich and guest artist
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org