Into a Deep but Narrow Channel: The Quad City Symphony’s 2012-13 Masterworks Series Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Tuesday, 25 September 2012 05:09

The Quad City Symphony next month will launch a 2012-13 Masterworks Series that takes a step back from last year’s ambitious, adventurous, and modern programming and instead plunges into the deep end of 19th Century Romanticism.

Gone is the wide-ranging repertoire that musically delineated the four main historical style periods spanning 300 years, from early-18th Century Vivaldi to a world premiere by local composer William Campbell. Gone are the global concept of Britten’s War Requiem, the eclectic contrasts of Modernism, and the contrapuntal complexity of the Baroque. And, by focusing on swing music for the February Masterworks concert, the symphony has effectively eliminated one of its season’s six primary showcases for classical music.

Comparing last season with the upcoming Masterworks musical selections reveals a distinct narrowing of style. Of this season’s 17 programmed pieces of classical music, two are Classical-period Mozart, one is 20th Century Stravinsky, and one is from a Broadway show by Leonard Bernstein, but the remaining 13 come out of the Romantic style period of the 19th Century. This is a significant reduction in variety from the 2011-12 season of 19 compositions: one Baroque, one Classical, 10 Romantic, three Impressionistic, three from the 20th Century, and one from the 21st Century.

The most recent classical music listed for this season is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, first performed in 1913. That’s a hundred-year gap between what we will hear in our concert hall and today’s musical thinking. Last year, the 20th and 21st Century style period called Modernism was represented by seven composers: Rodrigo, Ravel, de Falla, Britten, Abel, Ott, and Campbell – three of them living Americans. This year, only Stravinsky. And the absence of contemporary American classical music is particularly disappointing from Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith, whose Quad City Symphony bio states that he is “a champion of the music of our time.”

When asked in a telephone interview about the relatively narrow and modest repertoire, Smith said, “You can’t have big projects every year. Sometimes it’s good to get back to the meat and potatoes. It’s good for the orchestra and it’s good for the audience.”

Smith explained that changes in the emphasis of musical style from one season to another are not only expected but planned. “It would be a mistake to look at the music of one season without considering the previous seasons as well,” he said. This multi-year approach allows conceptual threads to extend beyond a single season. For example, this year’s Stravinsky completes performances of his trio of ballet scores, with The Firebird and Petrushka offered in earlier seasons.

Despite funneling the music into a Romantic focus, Smith has picked some of the period’s most popular pieces. Tchaikovsky’s explosive Symphony No. 4, Dvorak’s lyric 8th, and Beethoven’s five-movement Symphony No. 6 are rich in melodic and dramatic content.

And Smith continues the verve of last season in two concerts. In December, on the heels of last spring’s colorful excerpted performance of Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, he will conduct a concert performance of Act III from Verdi’s opera Falstaff. In March, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – arguably the most important work of the 20th Century – is paired with Ravel’s scoring of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which will provide refreshing countervailing to Stravinsky’s pioneering use of tonality and primitivistic orchestration.

Just as the upcoming season represents a reduction in both musical scale and scope, the Quad City Symphony is also moving away from high-profile guest soloists such as Midori in 2011 and international collaborations with groups such as the Chamber Orchestra from Detmold, Germany, last March. The orchestra will instead spotlight artists who are “local” in origin, taken from the orchestra, the community, and the Minneapolis area – where Smith is artistic director of orchestral studies at the University of Minnesota. Bruch’s Violin Concerto is a good choice for new concertmaster Naha Greenholtz’s contained, lyrical playing. Burt Hara, principal clarinetist of the Minnesota Orchestra, will perform a Mozart concerto; the University of Minnesota Opera Theatre and Quad City Choral Arts join the orchestra for the Falstaff performance; and pianist Tom Sauer returns to his hometown with Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto.

While I understand and appreciate Smith’s overarching “meat and potatoes” approach to this season, I find the February concert unsettling. Changing the emphasis of the “Valentine’s Day” performances from classical to swing music this year will basically morph the Masterworks program into a pops concert. Last February, the annual musical love-fest featured complete performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s beguiling tale of Scheherazade, Rodrigo’s intimate guitar concerto inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez and personal family tragedy, and Ravel’s sexy Bolero. This year, the first half of the program features dance music from Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and a waltz excerpted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Concert planners eliminated all classical music from the second half of the concert and replaced it with the Five by Design vocal group performing what the symphony brochure calls “all your swing-era favorites.” Smith explained: “We’re building on the success of the [Valentine] concert by attracting more crossover patrons to the Masterworks.”

Despite the changes and my criticisms, I can see how Smith’s season provides opportunities for extended themes in programming and nurtures the growth of our regional musicians. But I hope the evisceration of classical music from the February concert and the omission of America’s classical music in favor of a plethora of European Romanticism are temporary changes, and greater diversity will return in the future to, as Smith promised, “balance out [the repertoire] in the long run.”

I look forward to hearing our orchestra perform this music and to feeling the connection it creates to the timeless ideas and emotions of other ages, even if, this season, it’s predominantly only one “age” – 19th Century Romanticism.

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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 .

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