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QC Symphony Conductor Builds Reputation with Distinctive Choices PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 25 September 2001 18:00
When the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) takes the stage for its season-opening performances next weekend, the audience will have several new experiences – one piece in tribute to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and another that few people anywhere have heard.

The concert’s scheduled opening piece – Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture – has been replaced by Sospiri, a rarely performed work by Edward Elgar. The performance is meant to be a tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks and their families, and the orchestra is asking that there be no applause at the end of the piece.

“Every orchestra in the country is doing something,” said QCSO musical director and conductor Donald Schleicher, who is entering his third season with the symphony. Some symphonies are performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” – which the QCSO already does – while others are picking relatively conventional pieces such as “America the Beautiful” or Samuel Barber’s emotional Adagio for Strings.

Schleicher said that to his knowledge, no other orchestra is presenting Sospiri – and that seems to be one reason he chose it. “The title literally means ‘sighing,’” the conductor said. “The piece does just that: It sighs.”

There were certainly more obvious options, but Schleicher has made a habit of choosing works that many in his audience might not be familiar with. The second piece on this weekend’s program, for example, will be given only its third performance anywhere.

The work is An American Dream by 43-year-old composer Frank Ticheli, whom Schleicher describes as “a friend.” (Ticheli studied with William Albright, Leslie Bassett, and William Bocom, all contemporary composers whose work Schleicher said he admires.) Ticheli has received numerous awards, and he was commissioned by the students of Columbine High School to write a piece commemorating their slain classmates.

“I’ve wanted to do a major work of his [Ticheli’s] for a long time,” Schleicher said. The conductor had difficulty describing the 35-minute piece, saying, “It doesn’t really sound like anybody else’s. That’s one of the geniuses of his music.” But unlike much of the contemporary classical canon, Schleicher said, Ticheli’s piece is accessible, and enjoyable on first listening.

The opening-concert soloist, soprano Camellia Johnson, also sang for the piece’s first two performances. One of the distinctive characteristics of the piece, Schleicher said, is that the “music sounds like the text”; if the piece were done without a singer or with a singer who couldn’t do the part justice, the audience would still have a sense of the emotion of the text.

After two seasons at the helm of the QCSO, Schleicher has proved to be somewhat adventurous in his programming. He typically includes at least one major piece by a contemporary composer in the course of a season, which is impressive in a relatively conservative Midwestern community.

Schleicher also chooses pieces that might not be familiar to the symphony’s audience, sometimes by picking lesser-known works of major composers or making an inspired choice in soloists. The March symphony concert will feature trombonist Christian Lindberg, including his composition Mandrake in the Corner. That’s hardly a conventional pick.

Schleicher claims he’s just doing his job. “It’s part of my responsibility to present new music,” he said. And Quad Cities audiences have been “very open to new and interesting things. … They like to hear new things ... as long as they’re not sandwiched in a concert full of new music. … I also like to do pieces that don’t fit into the top 50 [most popular classical works] but could.”

The conductor, who is also director of orchestral studies at the University of Illinois, said that he uses different criteria for the Quad City and University symphony orchestras. In a university setting, the primary consideration is the orchestra, while the audience comes first with a community symphony.

Unconventional choices might suggest that Schleicher is trying to make the symphony hipper, appealing to a younger audience. Certainly, the musical director would like to bring younger people out for concerts. Yet he said he doesn’t know how to do it, and he doesn’t view an agèd symphony audience as a problem. There are more orchestras than ever, and a growing audience for them, he added.

“When you see a lot of white hair in the audience, you don’t need to panic,” Schleicher said. An older audience might be alarming to some people who feel the symphony’s constituency will die off and not be replaced, but history shows that classical music generally has an older audience, and as people get older, the orchestra’s strings draw them nearer. “It has been that way for 200 years,” Schleicher said. “It takes a lot of people a lot longer to come to the finer things in life.”

Yet symphonies should target a younger audience, Schleicher said: “That’s something I think we need to target better nationwide.”

Schleicher and the QCSO have discussed the possibility of sitting down with young people in an informal setting, such as a coffeehouse, as a way of reaching out. “That would be terrific if we could do that,” he said.

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday in the Adler Theatre in Davenport, and at 2 p.m. in Augustana College’s Centennial Hall in Rock Island. In addition to the Elgar and Ticheli pieces, the program will include Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Rapsodie Espagnole.
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