Quad City Symphony Orchestra to sing with joyful voices

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra's special 100th season has been a joy, and that emotion will be supersized this weekend.

Each of the works on the uplifting program — by Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig van Beethoven and a world premiere by James Stephenson — sings of peace, hope and the brotherhood of mankind, and each features vocal music.

"It's kind of a unique program like this — three different pieces with voices involved," Jon Hurty, director of choral activities at Augustana College (who's prepared the 150-voice choral forces), said this week.

The Saturday and Sunday concerts will start with a first QCSO performance of a 1907 nine-minute choral work by Schoenberg (1874-1951), "Friede auf Erden" (Peace on Earth), which will be performed by the 60-member Augustana choir a cappella (without accompaniment).

Dr. Hurty — who also directs the choir and the community-wide Handel Oratorio Society — said it's about the toughest piece the choir has ever done, and it's really not done often anywhere "because it's so hard," he said. "Harmonically, it's quite difficult because it's a cappella, trying to find a pitch center. It's crazy dissonance."

"It was sort of experimentation as he was moving away from tonality," he said of Schoenberg, who began emulating late Romantic masters and switched to writing atonal music.

The QCSO program says "Friede auf Erden" set an "extraordinarily high bar for choral singing because of its challenging vocal lines, ambiguous harmonic shifts and extreme ranges." For the work’s world premiere, the composer penned an optional orchestral accompaniment to support the singers.

Schoenberg chose the text from a Christmas poem by the Swiss writer Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, which begins with tidings of peace from the Christmas story, while remaining verses speak of the many wars endured since the Nativity, and a continuing hope for justice and peace, according to the program.

Schoenberg became disillusioned by world events, with "the horrors of the First World War forcing him to question his assumptions about the goodness of humankind," the program says. In 1923, he described the piece as “an illusion for mixed choir, an illusion, as I know today, having believed, in 1907 when I composed it, that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable.”

The middle piece on the intermission-less program — was commissioned from James Stephenson, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. His piece, "A-ccord," includes parts of an English translation of the famous Friedrich Schiller "Ode to Joy" (which returns in the Beethoven) and similar text from Dick Stahl, former Quad-Cities poet laureate.

Immortal Beethoven "Ode"

The Stephenson will flow directly into one of the most famous works in classical music, Beethoven's immortal Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”). Its first performance by the QCSO was in 1956, with the Augustana choir, and was last done in October 2008 as the first Q-C Masterworks concert conducted by current music director Mark Russell Smith.

"People know that melody, the piece itself just, everybody knows about it," Dr. Hurty said of the well-known final, choral movement. "But when you actually get into rehearsing the piece with the group, it's not as familiar, even the choral stuff."

The massive Ninth combines the forces of the Augie choir, 25-member Quad City Choral Arts and Handel Oratorio Society — which does Handel's "Messiah" each year at Augustana, and often performs large choral works with the QCSO.

"Beethoven's Ninth, the joy of the fourth movement, it's going to be fantastic," said Richard Hagglund, of Davenport, a 15-year HOS member who also sings in Dr. Hurty's choir at St. Paul Lutheran Church. "This is a real passion of mine. I enjoy doing it. Dr. Hurty is fantastic. I know there's going to be a huge turnout. It's such an awesome piece of music."

Mr. Hagglund, who's retired from the Rock Island Arsenal, sang in the last Beethoven's Ninth and said it will be difficult to sit quietly and reverently on stage for the first three movements. "You know your part is the grand finale; it builds the energy level," he said.

"And just knowing he wrote it when he was totally deaf. He never heard the thing, except in his mind," he said of the composer. "It's great to be part of the 100th season. There's nothing better than being part of it. It's going to be great."

Beethoven's last symphony (which also features four solo voices) holds an "extraordinary and exalted place in the world of classical music," the program says, and since its first performance in 1824, it was "recognized as a work unlike anything that had preceded it, both from Beethoven’s hand and from other composers."

Audience response at the premiere was overwhelming, the program says, noting that Beethoven, who because of his deafness was oblivious to the ovation, was turned around by one of the soloists to receive the tumultuous applause.

After Beethoven’s death three years later, he and the Ninth Symphony began to acquire a mythical status in 19th-century music culture, the program says, as Beethoven was viewed as "a heroic, suffering figure whose independence and libertarianism found an expressive outlet in the finale to the Ninth, with Schiller’s text and Beethoven’s noble music extolling humanity’s goodness under a gentle Creator’s watchfulness."

Adoring the chance to sing masterworks

Dan Walls — an Augie junior from Rockford, singer and student manager of HOS (which includes the Augie choir) — is filled with joy at the prospect of this weekend.

"It's really cool. I'm glad — one of the unseen advantages of coming to Augustana is being able to perform in Masterworks on a regular basis," he said of the QCSO.

In recent years, HOS and Q-C Choral Arts have partnered with the QCSO on requiems by Britten, Mozart and Brahms, and last year performed in the huge Mahler Third Symphony -- which had a chorus of 183, but just women and children, representing angels' voices.

Next spring, the full chorus will join the QCSO in the Mahler Second ("Resurrection") Symphony.

Mr. Walls loves the Beethoven because of "the grandeur of the whole thing, the massive scale, how groundbreaking the piece was at the time of its premiere, including a chorus in an instrumental piece."

The Schoenberg "takes a lot of stamina as well as part confidence, to know how your part interacts with all the others," Mr. Walls said. "Once you get it, it's really awesome. It's a strange juxtaposition of keeping only your part in mind, also listening to other parts."

"You wouldn't think it carries a message of peace, but once you study the text, hear the intricacies of the piece, you understand how perfectly it fits in with the (QCSO program) theme."

Mr. Walls also appreciates singing with adult members of HOS, since many are Augustana alums, and they share memories of when they were in school.

Purchase tickets at www.qcso.org

By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com