CEDAR RAPIDS — When the stars align just right, magic appears on the front lawn at Brucemore mansion.
Incessant rains the previous week threatened to turn “On the Waterfront” from the opening piece to a reality that could shut down Orchestra Iowa’s Brucemorchestra season opener Saturday night.
But with a week of dry days following the deluge, the turf was sturdy enough to weather the weight of a stage, an orchestra and about 3,000 fans blanketing the lawn with picnics in tow. And that’s despite overlapping with a sold-out University of Iowa-University of Northern Iowa football game in Iowa City.
Like the Hawkeyes, Maestro Timothy Hankewich and company scored touchdown after touchdown all night long, from the opening kickoff of the national anthem to the victory march of Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” featuring breathtaking photography by local legend George Henry. At age 95, he was in the audience to see his handiwork on the big screens flanking the stage, and to hear his son, Jerry Henry, perform in the violin section onstage.
All the composers in “The American Rhapsody” concert featured fascinating overlapping elements. They created a program of crossover appeal between pop and symphonic realms — just like the all-ages audience enchanted by this 11th annual event born when the floods of 2008 darkened the Paramount Theatre. Now the concert serves to whet appetites to enter the refurbished Paramount and see what Orchestra Iowa has in store indoors.
In a centennial celebration of the late Leonard Bernstein’s Aug. 25, 1918, birthday, Brucemorchestra launched with music from his only film score, “On the Waterfront.” The celebrated composer/conductor arranged it as a symphonic suite in the year following the Oscar-winning movie’s 1954 release. His work was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the whistling music of “The High and the Mighty,” a disaster film starring John Wayne.
Capturing all the drama of tale of murder and corruption on the docks, Bernstein’s sweeping work contains snippets that would spin into Sharks and Jets themes three years later in “West Side Story.” Sharp-eared listeners also will hear elements of “Make Our Garden Grow,” a glorious full-company choral work from his 1956 operetta, “Candide.”
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Bernstein used jazz dissonance to create tension on the “Waterfront,” not only among the clashing forces, but also in the lovely romantic passages, winding all the way up to a thrilling fanfare cacophony at the end.
The thrills continued as Rene Lecuona, a UI piano professor, stepped into the spotlight for the most anticipated piece of the evening, George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz concerto, “Rhapsody in Blue.” This perennially popular piece — orchestrated by Grofe and conducted and performed by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in London in 1976 — is instantly recognizable. Beginning with the upward bend of the clarinet, the melodies wind through the brass and strings, making way for the piano to shine.
And Lecuona was the brightest star in the galaxy that night. She plays with such passion and fervor that when she finished the first solo passage, she flung her arms wide open to let the energy continue escaping from her fingertips.
Video cameras embedded within the orchestra gave audience members close-up views of Lecuona’s flying fingers, especially elegant in the many cross-hand phrases, as well as close-ups throughout the ensemble, which on this night of jazz works, included symphonic saxophones.
Bursts of applause accompanied Lecuona’s solos throughout, which were woven through impeccable orchestral swells, ending with an immediate standing ovation.
Gershwin’s genius ushered in the second half, as well, with his “I Got Rhythm Variations.” Lecuona returned to the grand piano for a technically demanding arrangement of this jazz standard, featuring a blistering trumpet duel with piano. Who could ask for anything more?
More was in store, however, as the concert turned personal. Dr. Dennis Kral of Cedar Rapids, looking dapper in black tails and red vest and bow tie, took to the podium while Hankewich poured himself a glass of wine (like he does when Santa picks up the baton at the holiday pops concert).
Kral won the honor by making the winning bid in a fundraising auction during pianist Emanuel Ax’s residency with the orchestra in April. Fittingly, he chose to conduct the “Kral Tango,” which he and his wife, Karen, avid ballroom dancers, previously had commissioned from principal trumpet player Andrew Classen of Des Moines.
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Kral, also a trumpet player in area bands, said he was more nervous during rehearsals than on the podium. “I just had to start them,” he said the next day, adding that he was especially pleased when Classen told him afterward that he “ranked right up there” with the best of the orchestra’s guest conductors.
The evening ended with a rousing trip through a day in the Grand Canyon, as seen through George Henry’s photographic lens and Grofe’s evocative music painting swathes as vivid as the canyon’s striations.
The orchestra took the audience along for a ride from the long crescendo of sunrise to the symphonic bray of donkeys making their way down the winding trails, and on through a majestic sunset. The final movement conjured up a storm of magnificent grandeur — augmented by a hand-operated wind machine in the percussion section — crashing into thunderous applause.
The orchestra season continues with a Beethoven concert featuring pianist Jonathan Biss on Oct. 12 and 13 and a pops concert playing the musical score live during a screening of “Psycho” on Oct. 27.
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