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Orchestra Iowa film celebrates 100 years with a portal to the past, glimpse into the future
How humble beginnings became a symbol of Cedar Rapids’ perseverance
CEDAR RAPIDS — “Don’t you think Cedar Rapids ought to have an orchestra?” insurance agent E.A. Hazelton asked in 1922.
The rhetorical question was the inception of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, now Orchestra Iowa — one of the most respected professional symphonies in the Midwest.
As Orchestra Iowa celebrates 100 years of excellence, a new film shows how many times the Cedar Rapids community said “yes.” The documentary from Creative Gene Films narrates its first century through an evolution in professionalism, the flood of 2008, the derecho of 2020 and the pandemic as the legacy institution positions itself for the next century.
“To come to this milestone is an indication of how much this community loves its orchestra and how much it stood by this orchestra through a long history of ups and downs,” said Maestro Tim Hankewich, music director of Orchestra Iowa. “So this is a really important moment for us to not only celebrate that we made it this far, but also to reinvigorate it so we’ll be here in another hundred years.”
If you go
What: “Orchestra Iowa — 100 Years into Our Future” documentary premiere
Where: The History Center, 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 3 p.m. Feb. 26
Tickets: Free, but must be reserved for attendance; historycenter.org/orchestra or (319) 366-8206
Online: Can’t make it? The film will run on a loop at The History Center through April 1.
With no video footage to pull from, the documentary film’s format borrowed heavily from the style popularized by PBS documentary maker Ken Burns. With heavy emphasis on historical photos using voice-over from those most intimately involved with the orchestra over the years, the film gives the biggest microphone to the voices who know how to tell the story best.
“We wanted to tell the story of how this orchestra has always been part and parcel because of the community. It exists because of the community and the community benefits greatly because of its existence,” said Ben Marion, writer for the film from Creative Gene Films. “The story reveals itself through talking with the musicians and directors and the principal people of the orchestra. It was so important to let the people’s voices tell the story.”
Viewers will learn how the orchestra quickly outgrew its first home at Sinclair Memorial Chapel; its move to the Paramount Theatre; the leaders who turned a pool of community talent into a formidable band of professionals; and its modern programs that invest a significant amount into educating the next generation — instilling a sense of appreciation that will reap support for the organization for decades to come.
“We wanted a greater appreciation for the orchestra beyond appreciation in the concerts,” said Candy Wong, executive producer who recruited Marion and video producer Paul Marlow to commemorate Orchestra Iowa’s 100th birthday. “I’m very much of the opinion that without creativity, there is nothing. What better way than the arts to try and instill in people a sense of ‘I can do something, I can make something, I can offer something.’ ”
The late Barnes O’Donnell, former president of the symphony board, tells the story of finessing the donation of the abandoned Paramount Theatre to the city and fundraising $1 million to renovate it into a new home for the orchestra. Another person interviewed, Diane Jacobs, played the cello from 1950 to 2011 for every conductor in one of the oldest continuously operating orchestras west of the Mississippi River.
O’Donnell’s interview was captured before he died in December 2022.
While filming numerous hours of interviews over 11 months, the documentary encountered several challenges. By volunteering their time, Marion and Marlow helped solve the first one — no budget to produce the film.
“We think (Orchestra Iowa) is the lifeblood of the community. It’s all about community,” Marion said. “If the community doesn’t support it and give to these groups, we’re at deep loss.”
Now with about 70 professional players sourced from strong talent markets across the country, Cedar Rapids punches above its weight for a midsized Iowa city. But surviving 100 years involved several moments of deep loss. Through it all, Marlow called the story one of the city’s survival.
The flood of 2008 posed one of the first practical challenges for documenting the orchestra’s history. Although the orchestra kept meticulous records throughout its history, most were destroyed by the flood. Marion and Marlow relied on articles from The Gazette and The History Center’s archives to bring to life most of the organization’s early history.
“It was so emotional to come back and see destruction from the flood,” Marlow said. “They were determined not to let it go.”
After reconstructing the Paramount, the COVID-19 pandemic took a significant hit on arts and culture organizations reliant on in-person shows. Then, damage from the August 2020 derecho destroyed the orchestra’s collection of printed music — about $40,000.
“It’s very dramatic. We tried to make this as emotionally evocative as we could,” Marlow said.
Hoping to engage the next generation, the film incorporates what Orchestra Iowa is doing to pivot for the next 100 years. As the typical classical music audience grows older, the filmmakers credit current music director Hankewich with efforts to diversify the orchestra into a more inclusive organization that reflects the future of Iowa.
The title, “100 Years Into Our Future,” has a particular emphasis on the “our” to reflect the inclusivity that has always been at the heart of the community-led organization.
“The film was a way to highlight the very humble beginning of the orchestra and how far it’s progressed into what it is today,” said Jeff Collier, Orchestra Iowa’s executive director. “I think it’s an opportunity to reflect on the history of the orchestra and the role it’s played in the community.”
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