QCSO to Formally Launch Second Century Saturday

By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra hopes to keep the passion and excitement from its special 100th season going for the 101st, which formally starts with the first Masterworks program -- Saturday at 8 p.m. at Davenport's Adler Theatre, and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Rock Island's Centennial Hall.

This first one is unique because it re-creates the same program from the first concert in the symphony’s inaugural season, on May 29, 1916. It features three Tchaikovsky pieces, Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" and an aria from "Tannhauser"; Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8, and Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto in G minor. Guest soloists are soprano Heidi Melton and pianist Roman Rabinovich.

"Just replicating exactly, I thought it was a cool idea," QCSO conductor and music director Mark Russell Smith said recently. "Programs back then were so different; it's going to be really fun. It's going to be different than any other concert."

One hundred years ago, concerts were more "a little bit of this, little bit of that," and familiar pieces, he noted. "It was all new music to them, just 15 to 20 years old."

Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave" is rarely played nowadays, with good reason, Mr. Smith said. "It's a piece you kind of just laugh at, but there it was on the opening night. Junior high bands play it."

The Curtis Institute of Music grad has worked with Ms. Melton at Curtis, and Mr. Smith was wowed. Unfortunately, "she sings for five minutes and leaves" this weekend, but he plans to have her back next year. "She's singing all over," he said. "She's being booked everywhere. She's a big deal. Good thing we got her."

Of the new season, Mr. Smith is most pumped about the final Masterworks -- the mammoth Mahler Symphony No. 2 ("The Resurrection") next April, with two vocal soloists, Quad City Choral Arts, the Augustana Choir and Handel Oratorio Society. That features a relatively brief choral section in the last movement, and a total more than 200 performers.

"It's always an occasion. It's a big deal -- that's the crowning achievement," Mr. Smith said of the late-19th century work. "It's challenging, but in a different way. They (the chorus) sit around for an hour and a half, but when they sing, it changes everything. It's thrilling for the chorus."

Before those concerts, he will talk to Augie students about the piece, as he did last season with the Beethoven "Choral" Symphony No. 9. "To be part of Beethoven's Ninth as an undergrad, it's a life-changer."

QCSO subscribers (and others) had a life-altering experience in May, as they packed a sold-out Adler for the orchestra's one night-only with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"It shows if we do leverage our resources, to bring in something that's truly extraordinary, that we don't get every day, the community goes for it -- whether it's Yo-Yo Ma, the Diana exhibit, or something at the Figge," orchestra executive director Ben Loeb said.

Subscribers got first shot at those tickets last season, and that helped boost that year's subscriptions. Marketing director Brad Lewis said the numbers (including those who pick three of the six Masterworks to attend) look good for this season.

"Keeping momentum for 101, after 100 -- it was hard to beat that season," Mr. Smith said. "The biggest orchestras are really struggling to keep subscriptions. It's more single-ticket buyers."

"My job is to make sure we take that momentum (from Yo-Yo Ma) and concert number one has just as much energy, and that's a challenge," the enthusiastic conductor said.

A century of challenges adds up

The classical-music industry faces far more challenges than in 1916 -- including many more entertainment options, people's shorter attention spans, limited leisure spending, and a nationwide graying of classical audiences.

"Our audience is a sophisticated audience. It really depends on how it's presented," Mr. Smith said of unfamiliar works, like last season's newly-commissioned pieces starting each program. "They respond to that. Thanks be to God, I never have to program down," he said of adding more popular or pop-oriented pieces.

"I'm always keeping the audience in mind. That doesn't mean they're going to like every piece, or dumb stuff down at all," Mr. Smith said. "The balance of what we present -- the big, long, complicated pieces, contrasting with the shorter, flashier pieces. We keep all that in mind. Everybody's trying to figure out the right balance for their city."

To attract younger audiences, the QCSO has an advantage in that many area students play in school bands and QCSO youth ensembles, he noted. "They have hands-on experiences that are often transformational. That's such an important part of what we do."

"If we want that audience, we have to nurture -- you have family concerts like we are, that the youth orchestra program thrives, which we're trying to do," Mr. Smith said.

The new spring family concert (long in the plans) is next April 9, with music from Disney films. The symphony also will bring back Cirque de la Symphonie for the second straight Holiday Pops at the Adler, in three shows Nov. 20-21. It moved last year after many years of a single night at the iWireless Center, which is not conducive to classical concerts, Mr. Loeb said.

Last year's Holiday Pops sold very well, he noted, and assistant conductor Ben Klemme (who leads the QCSO youth ensembles and will conduct the holiday show) is preparing an all-new program. Cirque also was designed specifically for a theater like the Adler, and Holiday Pops there is a better fit with Festival of Trees next door at RiverCenter, Mr. Loeb said.

"It's all high energy, just fantastic music to experience, with this visual component," Mr. Klemme said, noting Cirque performers fly over the audience.

Tapping local talent in concert

As Mr. Smith likes to do, the second century of symphony seasons will start with generous servings of home-grown talent in the spotlight.

The November concerts will feature violinist (and QCSO concertmaster) Naha Greenholtz and principal cellist Hannah Holman in Brahms' Double Concerto in A minor. Mr. Smith called the women "our local superstars."

Ms. Greenholtz, 30, has soloed every year since she's been here, beginning in fall 2012, Mr. Smith said, noting she's played concerti by Bruch and Higdon, and last year was part of Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante, in an entire concert of in-house soloists.

"We try to feature her every year, because she's a great asset," Mr. Smith said. "She enjoys doing it and the audience enjoys seeing her." Ms. Greenholtz also often plays in (and directs) the orchestra Signature Series of chamber pieces, in which she was just paired Sept. 20 at the Figge Art Museum with Mr. Loeb on piano.

December Masterworks will feature pianist Marian Lee, an assistant professor at St. Ambrose University, in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467.

Next March will again present a world premiere (commissioned by the QCSO) by Jacob Bancks, assistant professor of music theory and composition at Augustana College. His "Rock Island Line" premiered with the orchestra in March 2014.

This time, Dr. Bancks has written "Dream Variations" for solo bassoon and orchestra, to fit that program of variations. It starts with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and ends with Elgar's famous "Enigma" Variations.

The circle of Q-C connections that weekend will be completed with the bassoon soloist Mark Timmerman, a Davenport Central High alum, and the Masterworks conducting debut of Ben Klemme, a Davenport native who graduated from Pleasant Valley High. He started in 2014 in the new job of QCSO assistant conductor, community engagement coordinator and music director of youth ensembles.

Mr. Klemme also studied conducting with Mr. Smith at the University of Minnesota (where the QCSO music director is head of orchestral studies). "I'm very excited about it," Mr. Klemme said of the premiere. "He's a great composer."

Dr. Bancks -- a composition major at Wheaton College outside Chicago -- earned a master's in composition from the Eastman School of Music in New York, and Ph.D in composition from the University of Chicago.

Creating a bond with the community

Mr. Smith works persistently to demystify classical music, and make it understandable, accessible and enjoyable to audiences.

"It's about tearing down these perceived barriers, that classical musicians are a certain way, this music is a certain way," he said.

The conductor and orchestra do that with "Inside the Music," free talks about each Masterworks the Thursday night preceding (at Hotel Blackhawk); "Concert Conversations" an hour before each concert; "Afterglow," where audiences can mingle with musicians at a Hotel Blackhawk reception after the Adler shows, and Mr. Smith's penchant for speaking from the podium.

He also recently spoke at the Figge on a free Thursday night program, in conjunction with the "American Moderns" exhibit, and Mr. Klemme said that was attended by many more than a typical Thursday.

"It showed our community responds to that kind of partnership. The response was huge," he said. "These are the kinds of experiences, where the audience has an opportunity to engage with musicians, just to realize, these are our neighbors. That is one significant way we are working to build our audience, strengthen our relationship."

"It fosters trust for the repertoire they're not as familiar with, that it will be presented with quality," Mr. Klemme said.

Despite all the talking, Mr. Smith said: "The concerts, for me, are the sacred thing. We have a pact with our audiences and our musicians, that we as artists are gonna give our all, and I think audiences sense that."

"People today are seeking all manner of experiences that inspire and that have the ability to transport them to a place of joy and hope for the future," Mr. Loeb added by e-mail, "and music is a sometimes overlooked vehicle for that transcendence…especially when enjoyed live."

"What I love is, people say 'It's not fall until we go to Riverfront Pops, or it's not Christmas until we go to Holiday Pops," Mr. Smith said. "If we can become so enmeshed into the community like that, that's where music makes a difference...It's so great when music is part of an American experience."

He is planning to focus on J.S. Bach in the following season, and next month's program will feature short Bach works partly because the two other composers on the bill (Brahms and Shostakovich) revered Bach, Mr. Smith said.

He eventually wants to do a concert opera program, and while expensive to book the required singers, it would fill a gap without a professional opera company in the area. "That's a need. It would be great for the orchestra, great for the audience," Mr. Smith said.

For more information on the orchestra, visit qcso.org.