CEDAR RAPIDS — “You just saw God,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich told a standing-room-only crowd as Emanuel Ax left the Paramount Theatre’s Encore Lounge on Saturday night.
The world’s foremost concert pianist graciously answered several questions from the audience before excusing himself to warm up for his triumphant performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Orchestra Iowa.
“I hope you enjoy the concert ... and I hope I play all right,” Ax said.
That humble demeanor endeared him to thousands of Eastern Iowans this past week, during his four-day free residency designed to showcase, support and sustain the orchestra now and for future generations.
“Being able to touch greatness is something amazing,” Hankewich told Saturday’s preshow crowd. “This is going to be a great concert, but I want people to remember why we’re here, and why he was here. Obviously, this is going to be a very memorable occasion.
“But this really is about our future. To really honor his gift, it’s about how are we going to get this community, this whole area, behind an orchestra that is so fabulous? The musicians who I get to lead are artists, and they are just stellar,” Hankewich said.
“So what does that mean for audiences? What’s that going to mean not for tonight, but for next week, or next month when we perform, or next year when we perform? There can’t be any music without you. There can’t be any music without your financial support; there can’t be music without your moral support. And that’s why he’s here.
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“Sometimes it takes an outsider to come into a community and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got something special here.’ He phoned up out of the blue, and that is absolutely amazing,” Hankewich said.
“Wonderful,” “incredible” and “we’re on another planet” were the first three audience comments I heard above the buzz as the sold-out crowd left the concert.
They had experienced more than two hours of exquisite laser precision played with passion and panache — from everyone onstage. Orchestra Iowa is, indeed, a stellar ensemble, with all of its gifts laid at the feet and hands of a gentle giant who speaks softly and plays divinely.
Ax’s fingers float so fluidly and effortlessly over the keys, and in the 50-minute marathon that is the Brahms Second, he even looked away to interact with the orchestra and occasionally run his fingers through his hair. He was completely engaged with all of his musical colleagues — never above them, but beside them every hair-raising spin on what Hankewich promised would be “an amazing ride.”
So often during his many performances this past week, Ax would say, “This is very difficult. Wish me luck.”
I’m guessing luck has nothing to do with it.
His interpretation of the Brahms was sublime, through and through. It’s his signature piece, for good reason. He rode the rapids through waterfall after waterfall of cascading notes, churning up the roiling streams, then bringing it all to a whisper through the placid, pastoral passages.
Especially lovely were the calls and responses between piano and French horn, and later, solo passages for cello, viola and oboe. The peaceful reverie of the third movement built in intensity to usher in the final movement. Various instrumental voices finished each other’s sentences while the piano held its own conversation, handing it over to the strings to continue the lively dialogue.
Dramatic flourishes marked the musical ebb and flow from strings and woodwinds, with bombastic brass heralds and percussion punctuation — all wrapped around piano exploits so stunning and elegant they took my breath away.
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After thunderous applause and a well-deserved standing ovation, Ax returned to end the evening quietly with a solo Chopin nocturne so delicate that a hush fell instantly over the crowd.
One of Hankewich’s special gifts is concert programming, and on this extraordinary evening, followed by a second concert Sunday night at the Solon Center for the Arts, audiences heard three pieces that complemented each other so perfectly in drama, passion and stillness.
The concert opened with the orchestra in the spotlight for Elgar’s “In the South” and Strauss’ “Don Juan.” Hankewich aptly described the pair as “swashbuckly.” Both pieces begin with a bang, then the Elgar moves into a quiet meditation before returning with a full-throttle verve and a cymbal crash rising to the majesty expected from the composer of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
“Don Juan” moves through the legendary lothario’s many moods in his quest for love, with sudden outbursts and quiet romances. Poor choices spell his doom. Smoke practically rises off the violins leading to a duel that ends in gasps of silence as he draws his final breaths.
“I’m going to be savoring this for a long time to come,” Hankewich said before the monumental event. So are we.
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