Returning to the podium after a six-year absence, James Dixon on November 4 conducted the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) in a concert that merged the best of European impressionistic and romantic traditions. The concert was an epic display of musical and emotional depth, yet despite its promise, the result was less than inspiring, a function of the choice of the pieces themselves rather than the performance.

For more than 30 years, Maestro Dixon was the music director and conductor of the Quad City Symphony, and his retirement in 1994 left a void in the area’s music community that has yet to be completely filled. As musical director, Dixon combined the best of the traditional repertoire with new works in ways that sparked the imagination and generated new interest in the symphony. As a conductor, Dixon was sought after around the country and took the podium for many orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony.

Dixon started strong with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, showcasing Berlioz’s compositional inventiveness with liberal use of brass and soaring QCSO strings.

Despite that strong introduction, though, the audience’s fervor was lost with the performance of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and was buried even further with a strong but ordinary reading of Debussy’s La Mer.

Satie’s Gymnopedies are three short works that took less than seven minutes to perform, but they cataclysmically altered the shape of the concert. In an instant, Dixon went from apparent and intense to subtle and reserved. Delicately, the orchestra lulled the audience into submission.

La Mer taps into Debussy’s fascination with the sea, and the first movement, “From Dawn to Midday” explores the sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic changes that occur as the light hits the water. The second movement, “Play of Waves,” draws the imagination to both light and motion, and as the orchestra played, I could sense the give and take of the rocking waves. The final movement, “Dialog of the Wind and the Sea,” imbued the sense of imminent danger climaxing in violent, stormy triumph. Emphasizing mood over sound, Dixon and the QCSO enchanted the audience, creating a truly impressionistic experience.

Dixon shifted to the world of German Romanticism with the concluding piece, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, and the transition was the least effective of the night. The symphony simply didn’t fit with the rest of the concert; monumental in sound and composition, it dwarfed the works of the first half while leaving me feeling a little empty.

Not my favorite composer, Brahms chose to play by the rules of composition instead of letting his emotions run free. These self-imposed barriers resulted in expressive symphonies that are unnecessarily complex and difficult to listen to. This is especially true of his fourth symphony, which incorporates a full-scale sonata into a symphony that spans movements. As a result, the symphony is unbelievably tightly woven.

The QCSO captured the passionate intensity of the first movement, explored both the dark and light tones of the Andante, and demonstrated the blatant agitation in the first two movements. Most impressively, the symphony was able to sustain its on-point playing throughout the entire work, never once succumbing to the depth and breadth of the Brahms symphony. The players did much more than survive the performance; they illuminated the symphony.

Yet even the orchestra’s inspired playing couldn’t shake my lukewarm feeling for the concert. Dixon created a program that was heavy on mood, but without any consistent thread tying the whole thing together. While notable individually, the pieces failed to support each other.

And the QCSO’s artful performance alone was not enough to infuse a special feeling into Dixon’s return. I only hope that future Dixon visits feature a more coherent selections of works.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher