QCSO and Friends Make Special Magic with Peace and Joy

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra's astounding concert Saturday night at the Adler Theatre will be a treasured memory for years to come.

It was a special occasion for several reasons -- as the sprightly, enthusiastic conductor Mark Russell Smith assured us at the outset, in his always insightful remarks from the podium -- and the interrelated, intermission-less program did not disappoint.

Ever since he was named QCSO music director in 2008, the tireless and invigorating Twin Cities man has looked forward to the 100th season of the orchestra. With his characteristic intensity, passion and precision, Mr. Smith led the final formal Masterworks program of this centennial season (repeated Sunday, fittingly, in Centennial Hall) with massive forces -- 230-some strong, including orchestra, soloists, the Handel Oratorio Society and Quad City Choral Arts. 

The singers stunned in the Q-C premiere of Schoenberg's idealistic 1907 work, "Friede auf Erden" (Peace on Earth), performed flawlessly without accompaniment, under the baton of Jon Hurty, director of choral activities at Augustana and artistic director of the 150-member chorus (not all sang in the opener).

A gentle, warm and beautiful plea for world peace, this post-Romantic piece does not contain the prickliness and aggressive atonality Schoenberg became known for later. While incredibly demanding and chromatic, "Friede auf Erden" was handled impressively by the Q-C choir -- stirring, forceful, and luxurious singing.

The middle work was among world premieres the QCSO has commissioned for each of the 100th season Masterworks, it was penned as a direct complement to the main event, Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony, "Ode to Joy." Chicago-area composer James Stephenson wrote "A-ccord" both by using some of the same Schiller poem as Beethoven did, but new text by Quad-City poet Dick Stahl (who wrote poems for the QCSO program to accompany each Masterworks concert).

Befitting Beethoven's paean to universal brotherhood and plea for joy, celebration and unity under a loving Creator, Mr. Stephenson cleverly created "A-ccord" for the instrumental and human voices to perform entirely in unison, together on one note at a time. The symbolism is obvious, the composer wrote, to have "everyone working together, regardless of color or (orchestral) family history, in an effort to 'all just get along.' "

It was a haunting, deceptively simple piece, beginning softly and imperceptibly. It moved deliberately, slow and stately, gaining speed with a big orchestral interlude, and heart-pounding, prominent percussion. As Mr. Smith noted earlier, it is an evocative, contemporary commentary on an imposing, monumental masterwork -- perhaps the greatest symphony ever written (from 1824).

And perhaps most presumptuously, the Stephenson flowed without pause into the first "A chord" of Beethoven's Ninth, which sounded like the full orchestra bloomed in glorious Technicolor (harmonies are back!). The first two pieces seemed like delicious appetizers (taking less than 35 minutes) before this huge, hour-long main course -- they longed for joy and goodness, and the Beethoven strode as a colossus, the culmination and realization of that dream.

And before that most famous, full-throated celebratory choral finale, we had to be patient during the first dramatic and eventful three movements. From the majestic, powerful opening movement, in which Mr. Smith (conducting without a score) seemed to wring every bit of emotion from the players, the jaunty, quick and swaggering second movement was a clear highlight.

Piercing, forceful, driving themes (including great timpani) pulsed, giving way to a more flowing, carefree theme, with a soaring horn, closing triumphantly with the original theme in an exciting finish. The third movement -- more lush and romantic -- was performed with sensitivity and grace.

The storm and drama of the last movement pushed us all closer to heaven and showed why Beethoven felt the human voice was the perfect instrument. Mr. Smith noted all instrumentalists aspire to achieve the singing quality of the voice. The first "Ode to Joy" theme in the orchestra was simply luminous -- subdued, reflective and dreamy.

Vocal soloists (soprano Karen Slack, mezzo Eleni Matos, tenor Vale Rideout and bass-baritone Dean Elzinga) were outstanding, with theatrical flair, and were matched by an overpowering, authoritative choral sound. It was a pure joy to witness all these talented performers joining forces to do absolute justice to such a towering, classic masterwork of Western culture.

Is it a coincidence that the German words for "peace" and "friends" are so close (friede and freude)? When you have good friends, you have joy and peace, and we certainly need as much of those as we can in the world today.

The sustained standing ovation (for three separate bows) Saturday at the Adler was certainly deserved. An unforgettable, magical experience for all those involved. 

Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2015 9:29 pm | Updated: 9:29 pm, Sun Apr 12, 2015.

By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com