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Brucemorchestra XIV promises to be a grand night for singing Sept. 18 — as well as a grand night for an orchestra emerging from the pandemic, Brucemore emerging from derecho damage, and audiences ready to picnic on the huge sweeping lawn, to music by the stars, under the stars.
Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich is ready to get back in the saddle. He’ll be raising his baton over Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical theater favorites, as performed by the orchestra, Broadway and touring show veterans with Cedar Rapids ties, Revival Theatre singers and dancers, and the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale.
“I’m so, so excited to be part of what’s become a tradition,” said Brian Glick of Cedar Rapids, director and co-founder of the professional Revival Theatre Company. “It’s quite an honor to be asked to be part of it.
“I think it’s the event of the year. It’s one of the largest stages and events in the city. Not having performed in a little over a year and a half, will certainly be something even more special,” Glick said. “It will be a celebration.”
He and Cameron Sullenberger, Revival’s musical director and co-founder, are bringing local and national stars to the stage for solos and duets in such musical theater classics as “State Fair,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.”
The concert marks the Brucemore and Orchestra Iowa debut for Broadway star Elena Shaddow, who knows the music to “The King and I” very well, having whistled a happy tune as Anna in the Lincoln Center’s tour. She’s no stranger to Eastern Iowa, either. Married to Cedar Rapids native Michael Harrington, the couple have two children, live in New Jersey, and work in the New York metro area.
Shaddow has stepped into the spotlight in eight Broadway productions, including “The Visit,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Nine,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Les Miserables.” She also has starred in the national tour of “The Light in the Piazza,” and sang the lead roles in concert versions of “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady.” And she has performed with symphonies across the county, and in London’s Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
What: Orchestra Iowa’s season opening concert, with guests from Revival Theatre Company and the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale
Where: Front lawn at Brucemore mansion, off First Avenue SE
When: 7 p.m. Sept 18; rain date Sept. 19
Tickets: $20 general admission lawn seating in advance, $25 at the gate; $35 advanced reserved chairs; free for students under 18 with advance paid admission at the Paramount Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE; $10 students over 18, available only at the ticket office; advance tickets at the ticket office, (319) 366-8203 and artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/brucemorchestra-xiv/
Extras: Parking is off site; bring seating, picnics; details at brucemore.org/event/brucemorchestra/
Christopher Johnstone, a Cedar Rapids native now living in New York and Los Angeles, is coming back to Brucemore, after appearing there in Cabaret in the Courtyard in 2015. Among his Broadway touring credits are Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” and the “Phantom” sequel, “Love Never Dies,” both of which stopped in Des Moines, as well as in “South Pacific.” He also has sung with operas and symphonies across the country.
Another Broadway veteran is Cedar Rapids native Catherine Blades, who performed there in “Bye Bye Birdie” and starred back home as Laurey in Revival Theatre Company’s 2019 production of “Oklahoma!”
Mississippi native Ezekiel Andrew, who performs around the country and starred as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Revival’s 2018 production of “Ragtime,” will step into the Brucemorchestra spotlight for solos and duets.
The concert also marks a homecoming for Orchestra Iowa. It’s been more than 500 days since the ensemble last performed live.
“I’ve missed the musicians that I love very deeply,” said Hankewich, of Cedar Rapids. “I’ve missed making music; I’ve missed interacting with my friends in the audience; I’ve missed the applause; I’ve missed the accomplishment of creating something extraordinary in performance that may or may not have been rehearsed in advance; I’ve missed the spontaneity; and I think, like everyone else, I’ve missed having a purpose.”
Hankewich isn’t worried about his arms holding up after such a long break, but he did go for a run before speaking with The Gazette in late August.
“I am terribly out of shape,” he said. “I have several pounds to lose, because I know come Sept. 18, I’ll probably be sweating up a storm. I need to get back into shape.”
His conducting muscles are the least of his worries.
“I am terrified for other reasons,” he said with a laugh. “Five hundred and twenty days is a long time not to be practicing your craft. Playing together as an ensemble is something we used to take for granted, and we’re going to have to relearn those skills.
“It takes a lot of chutzpah for a conductor to stand in front of 70 talented musicians at the best of times, and it only makes it easier if you can back it up. I actually have some deep-rooted insecurities as to whether I’ve still got it.”
At age 53, he has spent half his life conducting orchestras, so it’s a safe bet that Brucemorchestra will feel like coming home.
He said he and his Orchestra Iowa colleagues spent the pandemic doing “lots of planning, just no execution.”
“Last season was so exhausting, because every month I’d be coming up with Plan A, B, C and D, then we would halfheartedly start executing all four of those plans at once, only to have them all canceled, and then started over again,” he said.
“I’ve never planned harder for a season than last year, and of course, it was a season that never was, which was extremely frustrating.”
The orchestra has announced a full season for 2021-22, and while the recent spike in COVID-19 with the delta variant has him worried, he’s optimistic about the upcoming season opener.
“A lot of things are riding on this concert at Brucemore,” he said. “Not only is it a triumphant return, it’s the first time we can help our musicians earn a living. These musicians were shut out for a year and a half, without being able to earn from us.
“It bears repeating that all our musicians are professionals, and if they’re not playing, they’re not earning,” he added. “This last year and a half has been absolutely catastrophic for them, and meanwhile, I’m standing around impotently, not able to help them.
“So this will be a very joyous return to hopefully, some degree of normalcy.”
He noted that everyone onstage will have been vaccinated, and Brucemore’s vast lawn will allow audience members to physically distance.
“I’m confident that this will be a very safe workplace and performance space for everyone,” he said, “but going indoors, I am concerned. I know that some of our peer organizations in Iowa have already canceled their opening indoor concert, due to rising COVID levels — which is extraordinarily frustrating, because we don’t need to be here if enough people got vaccinated.
“But I am optimistic with Iowa’s numbers, compared with the national rates, that we’ll still be able to salvage most, if not all, of the season.”
Orchestra Iowa has performed the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein before, and it allows the players to work their way back into their ensemble groove while getting a bit of a workout.
“This is something that the orchestra on its first voyage back together will be able to execute very well,” Hankewich said. “But that’s not to say it’s easy. For example, the overture to ‘Carousel’ — it’s hard, and it takes a lot of time and ability to be able to play that well.
“The other thing that’s challenging about this program, is that the orchestra needs to be extremely flexible as it accompanies singers,” he said. “Especially in Richard Rodgers’ style, not everything is metronomically straight ahead. It’s very free in its speech-like qualities sometimes. So that means I have to follow them, and the orchestra has to be able to change tempos on a dime. That used to be easy, a year and a half ago, two years ago. Now it’s going to be a little bit more of a challenge.”
He also will have his back to the singers and dancers, as they perform on an extension at the front of the stage. And while the singers will be in concert attire and the dancers in flowing lyrical attire, don’t be surprised if Hankewich brings out his cowboy hat and boots, to put the exclamation point on “Oklahoma!”
In keeping with Brucemorchestra tradition, the production is designed to appeal to all ages, visually and artistically.
“It’s going to be extravagant,” Hankewich said. “It’s going to be family friendly, and everyone’s gonna just absolutely go crazy over it.
“It’s the Americana songbook that everyone knows and loves. The purpose for Brucemorchestra has always been a crossover between classical music lovers and those who don’t necessarily follow the symphony.
“The whole purpose of Brucemore it to demonstrate to the community our relevance, and that we do belong in this community,” he added, “and that we have much to offer in terms of quality of life and the amenities that make this community a great place to live — because it’s for the entire family, not just elites.”
His last bit of advice is “to bring a good bottle of wine and a great picnic.”
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