The pieces in the Quad City Symphony's fourth Masterworks concerts of the season would seem to have little in common: modern post-minimalism, a Mozart concerto, and a symphony rooted in religious faith. Yet in different ways, the presentation of each piece on February 7 unlocked the music.
Revisiting Michael Torke's Quad City Symphony-commissioned Oracle, the orchestra reached a comfort level with the composition that brought to light new facets through a sparkling, seasoned performance. Demarre McGill, principal flutist with the Dallas Symphony, redefined his instrument as muscular yet supple in an imaginative treatment of Mozart's Concerto No. 1 for Flute & Orchestra. And the highlight of the program was a towering performance of Anton Bruckner's epic Symphony No. 4: Romantic, aided significantly by introductory comments that framed it in the context of the composer's life.
After intermission, Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith briefly explained the genesis of Bruckner's unique concepts of sound and form. The primer addressed the music's connection to the composer's lifelong service in the cloistered organ lofts of the cathedrals of Linz and Vienna. A shy and socially awkward teacher, it was through music that Bruckner revealed the passion for his faith and its central role in the milieu of his daily life and musical thinking. The architectural strength of vaulted ceilings reaching upward, the serene, meditative prayers in chapels, grand processions, vocal chorales, and the symbolism of sacred relics were the central influences on his music. "His symphony," Smith said, "takes you on a journey to sacred places where one can sense the presence of God."
The basic structure of this symphony is not made up of a weaving dialogue among individual players but monolithic sonic blocks of extremely loud and soft dynamics between choirs of instrumental families - for example, the powerful, awe-inspiring brass chorales of the first, third, and fourth movements abruptly followed by soft, contemplative string interludes.
In the slow second movement, long, extended melodies passed from the violins to the cellos and on to the violas, revealing strong lyrical playing from each section. Violas are not often featured in symphonies, but in this Bruckner they played a prominent role by bringing their tonal sincerity and gravitas to his soulful themes. The entire string section, pressing deeply into the strings, created a thickness of sound that infused greater emotional depth into Bruckner's simple but noble musical ideas.
During the entire symphony, but particularly in the third movement (nicknamed "The Hunt" by musicians), the trombone section was brilliant. Its intensity, balance, and accurate intonation activated an array of overtones that reverberated throughout the hall. Together with a clear, well-defined tuba sound, the lower brass formed a strong, cavernous tonal foundation on which much of this symphony depended. When joined by the trumpets and horns, the hunting calls were dazzling.
Aside from a few spots of frail intonation at the beginning, the orchestra's performance was sumptuous in its balance and blend of orchestral timbres with a continuity of tone that had been elusive in earlier concerts. In the grand unison moments, when the entire orchestra was playing the same thematic fragment, the core voice of the orchestra's sound was arresting, radiant with artistic authority and intention.
The orchestra more than endured the 70-minute Bruckner, sustaining both the intensity of the musical ideas and the consistent demarcation of its contrasting sections dynamically and stylistically. The result was a successful journey that captured the awe and transcendence created by a spiritually alive organist/composer.
Although the opening piece, Torke's four-minute Oracle, was premiered only last season, its inclusion this year paid dividends. With almost any first performance of a composition, there is a survival tension - the stress of not knowing if the music will be manageable by the players in the performance. Repeated performances can alleviate these jitters: The orchestra relaxes, and its tone and blend become complementary instead of conflicting. And that's what happened in this performance.
With a second look, Torke's contemporary musical language settled in with the audience and orchestra. The tempo was less frantic than last season's first hearing, allowing a fuller blend of instrumental timbres - essential to Torke's harmonic style and orchestration - to speak more distinctly and persuasively. This was particularly evident in the chord clusters played by the strings and winds, and in the final tutti section when all the musical motives were brought together for the closing.
Fine balance of matching timbres within instrumental families brought tonal uniformity to imitating melodic fragments moving through the trombones and horns, horns and trumpets, and trumpets and trombones. It brought more solidity into the string sound and better definition to the woodwinds' unique tone color as a distinct choir. This led to the perception of seamless dovetailing in the overlapping arpeggiated motivic fragments.
Mozart's flute concerto likely brought with it the expectation of something light and airy. But flutist McGill's tone was huge, full of richness and vitality, easily heard in each of the three movements. There was no breathiness in the lower notes or steely thinness in the upper end, but instead strikingly broad and robust sound throughout the range of the instrument.
Even better was the way he used his sound, creating a surprising diversity of characterizations with a variety of articulations and carefully considered phrasing. One moment he was coquettish, the next sweepingly lyrical. In the "Rondo," driving scales flew with easy dexterity, dynamically intensifying and pushing through their arches and then feathering off at the finish. McGill displayed an intelligent shaping of phrases, revealing both the small and large architecture of the music - especially in the slow second-movement "Adagio non troppo." Here, Mozart's sinuous melodic lines were treated with tenderness as they intertwined slowly through the muted accompaniment from the orchestra.
Inserting a newer cadenza written by legendary French flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal was a delightful surprise that allowed McGill to project some imposing interpretive muscle through variations of tone color and phrasing, but also to demonstrate extraordinary technical flexibility that topped off a conscientiously considered and well executed performance.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.