REVIEW: Brucemorchestra X in Cedar Rapids brings joy times 10

Opera, orchestra combine for exhilarating evening of stars under the stars

CEDAR RAPIDS — Tenor soloist Ta’u Pupu’a said he couldn’t believe the reception he received from Orchestra Iowa’s Brucemorchestra X audience Saturday night.

The popular concert under the stars featured the combined efforts of Orchestra Iowa, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, national and international opera soloists and voices from four local choirs.

“I’m coming back here,” Pupu’a declared afterward, during a soiree toasting the Opera Theatre’s 20th anniversary season.

Thankfully, he will be back in January for the Opera Theatre’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” during which local audiences will have two more chances to hear his rich, soaring voice embrace “Nessun dorma (None shall sleep).” His powerful voice and towering physique, honed by the elite athleticism that took him to the NFL, combined to bring Brucemorchestra listeners to the height of heartbreak on one of opera’s most beloved arias. Cheers rang out before the piece was even over.

Joining him in the title role of Turandot will be Rebecca Nash, whose equally rich, exhilarating soprano filled the night air over southeast Cedar Rapids with passion and pathos on “Vissi d’arte (I lived for art)” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” She, too, swept listeners to impossible, shimmering heights, evoking well-deserved shouts of “brava” from the cheering crowd filling every nook and cranny on the front lawn of Brucemore mansion.

That was a very smart move on the part of concert organizers, giving the audience a taste of the artistry that will unfold in “Turandot” on Jan. 19 and 21 on the Paramount Theatre stage.

Rounding out the operatic first half of the concert, under the baton of Opera Theatre founder Daniel Kleinknecht, were Cedar Rapids native Janara Kellerman, returning with a fierce, fiery and seductive “Seguidilla” from “Carmen” and bass Daniel Sumegi as her “Toreador,” with all the pomp and bravado required of a master bullfighter.

More fire and passion rang out from the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale joining the orchestra on the instantly recognizable “Anvil Chorus from “Il Trovatore”; the Hebrew slave anthem “Va Pensiero” from “Nabucco”; and the exuberant “Les Voici” triumphant parade from “Carmen.”

Every aspect of this nearly 2 1/2-hour production was stellar, from the opening bounce of the overture to “The Barber of Seville” to the closing “Ode to Joy” chorus of Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No. 9, performed by nearly 300 musicians. Another 4,000 or so joined them for a thrilling encore audience singalong of the well-known chorus. (And no, Maestro Timothy Hankewich, who conducted the beginning and end of the concert, didn’t make the audience sing in German. We got to sing the lyrical poetry in English, projected on large screens flanking the stage.)

This marked the 10th collaboration between the orchestra and the historic estate in the heart of the city. One of my Facebook friends summed it up so nicely: “Don’t you just think Margaret Hall would be so tickled? Her dream truly has become a reality.” Indeed, Hall gifted the mansion and grounds to the National Trust in 1981, with the caveat that it would be used as a community cultural center.

It was the center of the cultural community this fine night, drawing all ages, from the stroller set to seniors, to picnic and bask in the splendor of perfect weather, perfect concert setting and perfect performances celebrating milestones for both Orchestra Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

The tradition began in 2008, after raging floodwaters forced the symphony orchestra from its home at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“This concert is a symbol of the symphony’s resilience. We know what the people of Texas and Florida are going through,” Hankewich told the crowd. “I thought our first concert on the front lawn would be our last,” fearing the venerable organization would never recover.

Far from a swan song, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, dubbed the Ode to Joy, performed in that very first Brucemorchestra, gave new hope to the organization that’s been an instrumental anchor in the region’s cultural life. Performing it again for the 10th Brucemorchestra, brought that joy full circle.

And what a magnificent celebration it became, with such regal musicality not only from the 65-piece orchestra, but from the 200 voices from the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale and choirs from Mount Mercy University, Kirkwood Community College and Coe College. What a gift to give those college students who have had just a couple of weeks to wrap their minds and voices around such difficult music. And what a gift to the audience.

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