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Steps Forward and Back: The Quad City Symphony’s Season Opener PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Tuesday, 15 October 2013 12:17

The first Masterworks concert of the Quad City Symphony’s 99th season was a checkerboard of strengths and weaknesses. Huge, transcendent moments filled the Adler Theatre in the October 5 concert, but when things got quiet, discrepancies in tone color, balance, and rhythm appeared.

Under the direction of Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith, the orchestra explored four diverse approaches to composition in reverse chronological order. Commissioned by the Quad City Symphony, the world premiere of American composer Michael Torke’s Oracle opened the program, followed by fellow countryman Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis, featuring only the strings. The mid-20th Century’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by British composer Benjamin Britten – with humorous narration by local media personality Don Wooten – completed the first half. After intermission, pianist Jonathan Biss joined the orchestra for Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Piano No. 1.

The concert was an elegantly designed program that included a variety of contemporary works balanced by a classic masterpiece, but – except for Torke – it was not a good selection of music for this orchestra. In the tutti sections, when all the instruments were played, the mixture of timbre was profuse. Yet as the scoring broke down into smaller instrumental combinations, the differences in individual colors became more problematic. The result was tonal incompatibility both among the same instruments and between instrumental families.

Torke’s four-minute opener was a clear highlight. The music in the score appeared to be simple – quarter and eighth notes laid out across the page with unchanging whole-note pitches held for several bars. But when the orchestra played them, the whole notes became expanding waves of sonic clusters that washed over you. The shorter notes became a pulsating engine propelling the waves higher and sending them crashing into you. Wave after wave, with subtle changes in orchestration and pitch, formed the core gestures of a piece that grew to its final cadence.

In a post-concert interview, Torke said he was “thrilled” with the orchestra’s rendering. With emphatic conducting gestures, Torke said, “Mark’s slower tempo made my music more grand than I originally imagined.”

Smith’s interpretation of the new music and the orchestra’s performance were energized, vivid, and taut. Heavily doubled, with many instrumental combinations playing the same musical figures, the orchestra effectively shaped the thematic repetitions into a slowly changing musical kaleidoscope.

Torke’s ideas were concise and intense yet more dazzling than substantive, more sensuous than profound. But they were orchestrated and developed with great skill toward the goal of inculcating the audience with anticipation, and it worked.

A delightful addition to the program was Wooten’s customized narration to Britten’s instrumental-demonstration piece. A complete redo of Eric Crozier’s original, sterile text, Wooten not only editorialized about the nature of each instrumental family and its components but named most of the performers as they played through the variations. He added a spattering of insider humor as well, with comments such as “The brass can be very loud, so they must sit in the back” and “Percussion are kept in the kitchen where they can bang on anything in front of them”; these drew chuckles from the audience and on-stage reactions, with musicians smiling as they played.

It was in this light piece that the orchestra created its most glorious moment of the night: The brilliant musical unification of the noble opening brass theme with the fast, fanciful, unison fugue theme at the end produced a gripping symphonic experience.

And the Brahms was convincingly dramatic and played with secure technical command. The slow compound rhythmic figures in the first and second movements drifted seamlessly between the orchestra and soloist. Close communication between Smith and Biss led to quiet whispers of tone in their reflecting exchanges in the “Adagio.” The finale “Rondo” demonstrated Biss’ ability to prioritize the weight of tone between the melody and harmony through complex rhythmic accompaniment. The string fugue near the end was impressive in its precision and balanced interplay when the winds joined one by one.

But the weaknesses in the performance revealed fundamental problems with the ensemble in size and tone quality. Fifty-five to 65 players represent a suitable string section for an organization performing the big pieces in the standard repertoire. The Quad City Symphony’s section of 44 was outgunned in producing the hefty, thick, dark sound needed for Brahms against the fully staffed winds.

A more-complex problem was intonation in Kernis’ Musica Celestis, adapted from a string quartet for the whole string section. In a piece that’s arguably harmonically dense to begin with, the string section could not make the tone clusters clear while searching for agreement in pitch. Even in the edgy, intense climatic moments – violins at the bridge and cellos in thumb position at the knees – the tone became unmusically shrill because of frail intonation. In the animated section, the overlapping imitation between each group wasn’t fluid and increasingly intense but was instead pulsating with irregular entrances and sudden changes in dynamics. The string section sounded wholly uncomfortable with this music.

While discrepancies in the tone color of the winds were hidden in the fuller musical sections and especially in Torke’s extensive use of unison doubling, softness revealed incongruence. In Britten’s Guide – a piece that intentionally features winds in pairs, trios, and quartets – the disparity in timbre within each instrumental family watered down the harmonic richness, warmth, and blend. The tone of some principal players, for example, was different from the second-chair players – sometimes brighter, sometimes mellower – and resulted in a perception of imbalance, as well. After the intermission, these problems re-emerged in Brahms, with its extensive interplay between the pianist and solo winds.

Moments of rhythmic instability were rare, but when Britten’s clever fugue pulled together all of the orchestral instruments from the top to the bottom of the score, the syncopation threw some players off rhythmically, creating problems for subsequent entrances of fugal counterpoint and transitional music.

The concert was a step forward for the symphony in thoughtfully combining contemporary music with standard repertoire, and it had many highs in execution. Unfortunately, the performance was a step backward from the intonation and timbre continuity that seemed to be improving over the two seasons I’ve been reviewing the symphony.

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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