Jokingly called “the bedpost,” the bassoon is the most omitted instrument in the classical solo repertoire. But the Quad City Symphony’s March 5 premiere of Jacob Bancks’ Dream Variations was serious musical business – a delightful and diverse 22-minute exploration of all things bassoon that helps fill the void.
Dream Variations for bassoon & orchestra was a plunge into the technical and musical possibilities of a solo instrument seldom heard up-front. But the Adler Theatre concert was also a showcase for local talent. Bancks is an Augustana College faculty member, and his technically acrobatic Dreams was brought to life by Mark Timmerman, the principal bassoonist of the New York Metropolitan Opera but also a Davenport native. And leading a performance that also included Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations was Quad City Symphony Associate Conductor Benjamin Klemme, a Pleasant Valley High School graduate making his conducting debut with the orchestra.
Following the success of his Quad City Symphony commission Rock Island Line two years ago, Bancks has written another musical depiction of the familiar. While Rock Island Line explored the sounds and history of the Quad Cities community, Variations has a more universal theme: the common experiences of dreams.
Bancks’ piece is similar to a motion picture without images – with a narrative backbone in the musical characterizations suggested and described by the eight variation titles. Imagine the sound contrasts between a variation called “Vertigo” – with its disorientation and dizziness – and the suspense in “Haunted Terrain” or the whirling downward spirals in “Falling” or the wild, heart-pounding and frenzied “Hysteria.”
Timmerman made good use of this new addition to the bassoon’s meager solo repertoire. Over three octaves of double-reed adventuring, from the plaintive musical sighs in the opening theme through the swirling of “Airborne” and “Falling” to the rapid, dry staccato leaping intervals in “Hysteria,” Timmerman’s tone was uniformly singing. Yes, he could “growl” – that raspy sound in the lower register – but it was always focused and musically pleasing, not cliché.
Dream is constructed with traditional and recognizable compositional devices such as phrases built on melodic sequences that “breathe” with an ebb and flow of energy. There are overarching dramatic gestures and a contemporary tonal system that functions in traditional ways, moving from relative consonance to dissonance to form rhythmic patterns that feel familiar.
As both a concerto and a guided musical tour of subconscious nocturnal events, Dream Variations both awakens and illuminates the imagination of the audience to hear for themselves how the nature of these dreams might sound, a process that forms a bridge between what is heard and the subject it represents. It is the clarity of this relationship that enables Dream to make a strong connection with the audience as a piece of contemporary music.
Bancks’ modern piece combined with the program’s two warhorses provided an in-depth look at Klemme in his first Masterworks concert in front of the Quad City Symphony. With a flick of his fingers in the quick, delicate ending of the “IV Variation” in Brahms or a full-body swivel with arms stretched out to draw out the lush richness of “Nimrod” in Elgar, it was evident that Klemme had the capacity to understand how the music worked and the ability to show the orchestra what he wanted them to do with it. Small, precise stick movements focused the players into accurate attacks of Bancks’ intricate chamber-music sections and guided them through counter-intuitive cross rhythms in Elgar’s “Intermezzo.”
Klemme demonstrated the traditional performance practices in the Brahms and Elgar, but he also revealed a fire for contemporary musical ideas. Each musical depiction of Bancks’ Dream Variations was convincing dramatically as well as distinctly different musically.
In a concert of nonstop changing meters and tempos, Klemme brought stylistic clarity to not only the work of three very different composers, but also to the musical characterizations between each variation within the pieces. In Elgar, for example, the fast off-the-string playing between the first and second violins in the second variation was distinctly different in both color and dynamics from the lyrically broad, thick movement that preceded it or the jocular “Allegretto” that followed.
Throughout the concert, Klemme’s control over the technical challenges in the orchestra with coherent conducting movements was the rule – but with a few musical blemishes. Brahms was, at times, a contradiction of inconsistent playing and articulation. Moments of precision such as the crisp horn variation were not matched with consistent articulations in the following “Grazioso.” Rhythmic elements between the strings and woodwinds (dotted 8th, 16th, 8th) were nuanced differently – the woodwinds snapping off the 16th, the strings connecting it to the following 8th. And without some hint of subdividing the slow, long beats in both Brahms and Elgar, Klemme lost some melodic cohesion in the inner pulses, specifically when the music was in compound meters (12/8, for example).
But Klemme’s debut overall was strong and promising, highlighted by another striking Bancks world premiere by the Quad City Symphony and Timmerman’s masterful performance in it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Quad City Symphony will close its Masterworks season with performances April 2 and 3 of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, featuring soprano Linh Kauffman, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, the Handel Oratorio Society, and Quad City Choral Arts. For more information, visit QCSO.org.