QC Symphony Concert Delights the Child in Everyone Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 06 December 2005 18:00
Many youngsters were present at the Quad City Symphony concert on Saturday, December 3, but they weren’t the only ones encouraged to let the music lead their imaginations to faraway places. In a night of music written by artists who, as described by conductor Donald Schleicher, are “serious composers with imaginations,” the Quad City Symphony conjured an atmosphere that allowed words and music to stimulate our minds, and create worlds where elephants wear suits and angels are summoned. Serious yet playful and deeply moving as well as whimsical, the performance met and exceeded my expectations.

Contemporary composer Michael Torke wrote the first selection, seeking to draw the listener into a snowstorm with his December, performed by the string section. The rapid staccato of the violins over sustained lower strings brought to mind a frigid, bare, ice-covered landscape with driving winds and sharp, icy flakes racing to earth. During the middle, a bass-heavy, deeply harmonic melody emerged, transporting me to a different kind of snowstorm, one in which shadows stretch across newly-fallen snow and the flakes drift mysteriously by.

Narrator Jon Hurty, the winds, and the percussion section joined the strings onstage to perform Francis Poulenc’s The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant. Originally improvised for a niece who demanded he “play” the popular children’s book, Poulenc’s musical illustration demonstrates the connection between words, music, and the imagination. Whimsically read by Augustana professor and music department chair Hurty, Babar is the story of a young elephant who wanders from the forest into town, where he is adopted by a rich old woman and lives in luxury. Later, he returns to the forest, is crowned king, and marries his cousin. During the reading, the orchestra interjected musical descriptions of the story. I could readily picture every scene, from the heavy trod of Babar’s mother as he rode on her back to the car horn of Babar’s new conveyance, to the pompous-sounding tea room being invaded by, and finally succumbing to, the heavy low brass sound of the visiting elephants.

Selections from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel were other serious, yet imaginative, elements of the evening. Young soloists Brian Witte and Amy Skjerseth appeared in full German costume as the lost children, performing the beautiful “Evening Prayer” duet. It is unsurprising that angels that were summoned by Witte’s clear, strong voice and Skjerseth’s tremulous harmony. After their innocent prayer for protection, the performers stepped back and fell “asleep” on a tree stump that magically appeared onstage. The orchestra musically portrayed the 14 angels appearing to protect the children during the majestic, soothing “Dream Pantomime.”

Edward Elgar composed The Wand of Youth as a backdrop for a play performed by Elgar’s brothers and sisters for their parents when he was merely ten years old. The piece is comprised of several movements, including an overture with bold, lyrical deep brass, a serenade with soulful clarinet, flute and harp solos, and a march with a somewhat other-worldly sound. Other movements portray pictures from the physical world, like a “Sundance” full of playful winds, plucking strings and a smooth melody, “Moths and Butterflies” with high strings featuring an off-kilter melody representing the meter of a butterfly’s flight, and finally “Wild Bears,” a frenzied, tense dance featuring surprisingly nimble bears. Hurty gave a short introduction to each piece, sharing what the young Elgar may have felt or thought about when writing the excerpts.

The concert ended with an encore of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sleighbells. Three of the percussionists donned Santa hats and picked up jingle bells and comically “competed” while the orchestra delivered a courtly performance. The juxtaposition was hilarious and ended the evening festively.
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