Birthing a Beast: The Quad City Symphony Orchestra, December 3 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Thursday, 08 December 2011 13:32

Rarely and unpredictably, a performance will transcend music and become a living thing, a forceful creature that grabs the audience and won’t let go until the piece ends; it then lingers for hours in the mind. These experiences transport me beyond what Gustav Mahler called “the sounds of a garrulous world” and overshadow the conductor and musicians – not because they’re unimportant, but because the life-giving in their performance is so profound. On Saturday at the Adler Theatre, the beast arrived after intermission when the Quad City Symphony Orchestra and Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith breathed life into Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.

Following the dramatic opening came an oboe solo with simple eighth notes – quiet – whose Neo-Classic organic traits reached back through 150 years of musical evolution and into the Baroque characteristics of Johann Sebastian Bach. The principal oboe leaned forward and raised his instrument to push his sound over the apex of the line, then a soulful, understated imitation in the cellos diminished to a mysterious whisper ... . The music was alive.

Dynamically aggressive and bold sounds from the third and fourth horns, evenly matched in both color and musical interpretation, caught my ear. In the softer moments, they took on a more refined, feathered quality, allowing them to blend into the reed timbre of the bassoon, contrabassoon, viola, and cello.

The string section began physically moving into their phrases like a subtle seated ballet, back and forth, in and out, producing a lush, sensual sound. As they played “in” their strings, the sound was like a plush, expensive carpet, warm and durable.

The woodwinds had that organ-like sound that comes from keen intonation and dynamic balance. The principal players leaned in closer to listen to each other and intermingle their sounds, raising their instruments slightly at solo points.

The slow second movement can be a trap. Played too fast it loses its depth; too slow it becomes a musical invalid. Smith found the right pace for this group. With evenly applied tonal pressure, the orchestra pushed the thematic lines through the phrases and kept them energized to climatic points, then relaxed into moments of repose.

The duet between the solo violin and horn near the end of the movement was poetic in its sensitivity and nuance of melodic shape. Their simple, subtle expression created an air of delicate privacy.

In the rich, melodic second theme, the tensile strength of the orchestra’s phrasing, the dark tonal colors, the dynamic control, and the physical movements of the players were like a slow-moving oceanic tide with vast, unremitting power.

In the final movement, a beefy principal horn “call” and a sonorous “chorale” led by the trombones left us at the doorstep of one of the great themes in the symphonic repertoire. Smith and the string section performed Brahms’ famous theme with sincerity and conviction. The viola’s countermelody emerged with muscle and vitality.

Bobbing and weaving behind their stands, with puffs of rosin smoking off their strings, the musicians made their dash for home. After the culminating restatement of the “chorale,” the orchestra brought Brahms’ first symphony to an electrifying conclusion.

It would have been nearly impossible for the first half of the concert to match the Brahms performance. But the unusual pairing of Italian Baroque with two compositions by living American composers diversified the program by style period, ensemble size, orchestration, and performance practices.

The concert opened with Global Warming, Michael Abel’s nine-minute composition inspired by the folk tunes he heard while growing up in his Los Angeles melting-pot neighborhood. It opens with “Ethereal,” tempo-less desert depictions featuring bravura-style improvisations from violinist Ariana Kim and cellist Hannah Holman. Once a tempo was established, melodic imitations of folk music from Ireland, the Middle East, and India were crisply ornamented by the woodwinds, followed by the rest of the orchestra in a climatic crescendo that led back to the “Ethereal” sounds of the beginning. Indigenous instruments – Irish bodhrán, Latin American güiro, and Indian tablas – added some native colors to the standard orchestra percussion section for the performance.

American composer David Ott’s Concerto for Two Cellos was an effective vehicle for the virtuosic credentials of guest-artist cellists Anthony Ross and Beth Rapier Ross. The three-movement work was constructed on exchanges between cellos and orchestra with sparse integration of the two. This separation allowed for an emphatic exhibition of improvisation-like playing with changes in tempo and customized phrases controlled by the cellists. The opening of the slow second movement displayed interweaving lyrical melodies between the soloists pushing the extremes of their instruments’ ranges. The energetic third movement was a tour de force for both soloists, with double stops, frantic exchanges of scales, pizzicati with glissandi, and other technical devices.

With Maestro Smith at the harpsichord, the duo joined a smaller contingent of Quad City Symphony string players for a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor that featured Baroque performance practices. Soloists, for example, included ornamented improvisations, and the entire ensemble employed slight hesitation at final cadences in the old-school tradition.

The Quad City Symphony’s next Masterworks concerts will be held February 11 and 12 and feature guest conductor Alondra de la Parra and guitarist Robert Belinic. For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .