In its December 6 concert, the Quad City Symphony checked off three important boxes - things every orchestra should strive for.
It included contemporary American music, in this case a world premiere from a local composer in University of Iowa professor David Gompper's impenetrably obscure Sunburst.
It illustrated the role of the sensitive accompanist, showcasing six of the symphony's own members in three pieces.
And finally and most impressively, it ignited and illuminated a musical masterpiece with sizzling passion and a refined artistic vision: The cohesive and insightful artistic ideas of Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith joined with the orchestra's unrestrained musical abandonment in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's masterful Symphony No. 40.
Instead of limiting the orchestra's Mozart performance parameters to the general dynamic and tempo instructions typical for printed scores in the old days, Smith added dramatic inflections developed in the Romantic period. He propelled the ebb and flow of energy into shaping phrases and increasing the intensity of articulations toward significant musical junctures.
In the opening bar, on top of elegantly agitating accompaniment in the violas, cellos, and basses, the violins dynamically shaped not only each melodic sequence but also longer sections of the music. The accompaniment figures were not simply background musical information; with Smith's additions, they became a churning engine of turbulent, undulating musical motion that added more depth of interest and textural richness to otherwise banal figures.
And in episodic sections, where melodies became fragmented and are distributed among the string section and solo winds in the score, the players musically delineated essential from subordinate musical ideas.
The last movement was a good example of Mozart's contrasts between two themes in a single movement and how Smith and the orchestra made them work musically. In the more-abrupt first theme, Smith asked for a variety of bowing techniques, bouncing the bow from off the string for shortness in the arpeggios and laying the bow on the string for sudden volume with faster scale fragments. In the second theme, a crescendo through sustained repeating notes gave shape and direction to the phrase. Consequently, within two brief musical themes, there were varied artistic elements, each with its own musical characterization.
There are as many ways to interpret the music as there are conductors. Smith's instructions revealed the depth of his understanding of how Mozart's music is grounded both theoretically and technically, and what to do beyond the score to make it more persuasive. It was the consistent application of these ideas that made the bits and pieces work with his overarching vision of the music.
If Smith's attention to detail gave Mozart's music the chance to jump off the page and come alive, the impressive technical and artistic skills in the performance breathed life into it.
The first-movement digression and development sections were clear examples of how precision playing can bring complicated music into translucent tonal clarity. The exchanges of melodic fragments between the violins and upper woodwinds were so finely balanced and similarly articulated that they produced an illusion of one continuous melodic line.
The weight of tone, its stressed heaviness and dark change of color in the "Menuetto" movement, made the Mozart-humor - where a dance in three-quarter time is constructed with only two beats - work.
The smooth lyricism in the following "Trio" was charming with its undulating theme exchanged between the strings and winds.
As exciting as the Mozart performance was, there were some minor problems. In the first movement, when half notes were tied to a series of eighth notes, the releases were not precise, throwing off some of the descending scales.
Tempos also changed with dynamic variations in the first movement. Softer sections slowed down, and loud sections struggled to regain the lost pace. In the second movement, the tempo was too lively at the beginning but gradually settled into a more comfortable pace.
Commissioned by the Quad City Symphony as part of its centennial season, David Gompper's Sunburst was based, according to the program notes, "on a sequence of fractions that, when placed in ascending order, result in a symmetrical set of proportions." And the music sounded like it.
The performance began with tones leading to a variety of overlapping musical textures, such as repeating staccato notes in the brass and plunking sounds in the keyboard percussion. These sounds were forceful at first, and musical ideas were passed between instruments. String chord clusters swelled and dwindled in volume and complexity until only a soft roll on a bell faded to the end.
If Sunburst was intended to be a musical depiction of a geometric shape, it was a good idea to include the shape in the program as a visual hint. But because the diagram that appeared in the program was, according to Gompper in a pre-concert talk, "incorrect," it was difficult to decode the obscure sounds into musical experiences more familiar to symphony-goers. An academic audience might have better followed the conversion of Gompper's math-based system to sound; as it was, the audience's reaction to the premiere was polite.
The concert was particularly noteworthy for featuring soloists drawn from the ranks of the orchestra.
Principal horn Marc Zyla stepped forward with a smooth melodic line and a uniformly consistent tone in Camille Saint-Saens' Romance for Horn, Op. 36.
Lillian Lau's performance of Maurice Ravel's Introduction & Allegro was technically stunning and magical-sounding. A tour de force for the harp, the music requires the use of multiple techniques that Lau has clearly mastered. One striking example was found in the "Cadenza," where Lau presented the theme with one hand at one tempo while making glissandos with the other at a different tempo.
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, cellist Hannah Holman, oboist Andrew Parker, and bassoonist Benjamin Coelho produced a technically strong performance of Franz Josef Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in Bb Major, although it was at times distractingly uneven.
The timbres of the oboe and bassoon were a contrast between bright and dark, both lovely individually but not blending. Also, there were discrepancies in the performance style of some musical figures between the violin and cello; imitating cadence points were accented and abrupt in the violin, while the cello let the notes continue to ring.
But the highlights easily overshadowed those problems and included a prodigious demonstration of technical prowess and musical characterizations. The free-flowing style of the first-movement "Cadenza" was pulled together with careful visual and musical communication. Little things, like the trills getting into the coda, moved perfectly in unison. Violin/bassoon and oboe/cello duets at the beginning of the second movement were rich in their singing style and playfully coquettish while players traded flurries of imitating figures back and forth. The sweeping scales in the last movement were a dazzling display of phenomenal instrumental skill.
For more information on the Quad City Symphony, visit QCSymphony.com.
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 email@example.com.