CEDAR RAPIDS — The stars overhead were hiding behind clouds Sunday night and cloudbursts Saturday night, but plenty of grounded stars were shining brightly both nights on the Brucemore estate.
A 24-hour rain delay couldn’t stop nearly 200 musicians, a legion of technicians and volunteers, and more than 2,000 audience members from flocking outdoors to finish launching Orchestra Iowa’s 2019-20 season Sunday night.
Dubbed Brucemorchestra XII: The Planets, the two-part event paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing and the Collins Radio engineers and employees who beamed that historic event from the moon to Earth. The program also celebrated otherworldly pursuits exploring Earth’s solar system and space, the final frontier.
Maestro Timothy Hankewich proudly flew his geek flag, wearing his “Star Trek” communicator pin on his lapel instead of hiding it on his suspenders like he does for other concerts. He also delighted the crowd by firing up a light saber to conduct the concert finale, “Star Wars Theme” by John Williams.
Part I on Saturday
Part I began at 5 p.m. Saturday, with family STEAM activities, giving kids and adults plenty of opportunities to interact with science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics activities.
An instrument “petting zoo” was a big hit, as kids banged on drums, and puffed up their cheeks to blow into wind instruments. Another popular spot was the slime-making booth. But all the stations drew plenty of attention and curiosity, from operating robots and walking through a planetary trail, to seeing an actual NASA spacesuit and meeting two former NASA astronauts and local NASA Solar System Ambassador Mark Brown of Marion.
Part II on Sunday
Since all those activities ended before the rain started, the stations weren’t set up Sunday. But plenty of steam heat blanketed those who came for Part II, which began under sunny blue skies before ominous clouds rolled in partway through the concert.
That atmosphere augmented the event, without diminishing the artistry emanating from the stage.
The concert launched with Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale members leading the audience in singing the national anthem, followed by “Star Trek Through the Years.” After the big blast off — instantly familiar to ears pointed or not — the atmosphere turned pretty and serene with the strings, before cellos, bass and low horns took over the melody while flutes skipped sprightly across the stars. Naturally, it ended with a bang and the peal of chimes.
Hankewich then turned on his axis for the first of many thanks he bestowed upon the audience.
“I’m so grateful you’re here, and I’m touched,” he said. “It’s been a rough couple of days, but we’re here and so are you, and that’s what matters.” He then thanked the Brucemore and orchestra staff “for all of their work for making it so.”
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Our largest planet came into view next, with the first and fourth movements of Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41. Composed in 1788, it later was named “Jupiter,” after the jovial Roman god of the sky and thunder. Full of fire and fury, the work mirrors the energy of our fastest-spinning planet.
In between movements, Phil Jasper, head of Mission Systems at what is now Collins Aerospace, stepped onstage to honor the Collins Radio employees who left their mark on the Apollo 11 mission. The touching salute recognized their brilliance and innovation in providing the communications systems that allowed the world to see the first steps on the lunar surface July 20, 1969.
The evening’s youngest musical star emerged next, with “From the Earth to the Moon & Beyond,” a milestone tribute by James Beckel, which Orchestra Iowa co-commissioned with the Boston Pops and seven other organizations. From the cacophony of the Big Bang, the piece, gigantic in scope, told the history of space exploration through music, video and live narration by retired NASA astronaut Daniel Burbank.
Very contemporary washes of sound accompanied the “let there be light” creation phase, then turned more melodic with swooshes still dashing through the melodies. Many moods continued to undulate, with the majestic thrill of the lunar message “We came in peace for all mankind;” to light and lively implications of space travel; a haunting oboe solo; and syncopated beat of the strings.
As Hankewich lowered his baton, “WOW!” shot up from the crowd, quickly follows by cries of “bravo.”
The program’s second half showcased English composer Gustav Holst’s seminal orchestral suite, capturing the nature of seven planets: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic. All are stunning, but the highlights are the ominous opening of “Mars,” with the thundering advance of warriors; the Morse Code homage hidden within “Mercury;” the familiar dance of the bombastic, lush “Jupiter;” the eerie dissonance of the many layers of “Saturn;” and the sheer angelic beauty of the women’s chorus in “Neptune,” which Hankewich said captured the stillness and coldness of space. That is not an easy vocal wash, and the women of Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, joined by area college students, handled it with grace.
Never one to fade into a darkened abyss, Hankewich wielded his light saber to rocket through the iconic “Star Wars Theme.” The final crash of cymbals and timpani brought the crowd to their feet again, with more shouts of “bravo.” The Force was with us all.
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