Monday, November 12, 2007

In the Heartland


Over the weekend, my friend and I went to Dubuque, IA to spend some time. An idyllic small town with many accolades, it also is home to the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra, which so happened to be playing during our trip. It wasn't part of the itinerary, but if they were going to play during the eclipse of time I was going to spend in Dubuque, I was going to go, plan or no plan. You can't stop good music from being heard. At $39 a person, I thought it was a bit expensive, but the town's citizens have money to burn, so the DSO can charge that price. Two blocks away from the Julien Inn stood the old-fashioned and quaint Five Flags Theater where the orchestra regularly plays. It is an intimate space, first opened in 1840 and rebuilt in 1910. Either way, it is an old establishment, perfect for hearing the old stand-bys that made up the concert: Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 and Brahms' Symphony No.4. It was going to be a long concert, but it was going to be fun to see and hear how small town orchestras tackle the biggies.

The first thing you notice is that the concert hall is very small. There really is no bad seat in the house and my seat, at the front of the first balcony, positioned me practically onstage, or at the very least, in a perfect acoustic environment.


The orchestra had to be smaller than the standard orchestra of today, totaling around 55 to 60 players, to fit onstage. With the piano, the stage was filled to the brim. Two Hungarian Dances of Brahms opened the program, and although played a little too slowly for my tastes, the orchestra, led by its Music Director and Conductor, William Intriligator, seemed to be at home playing flashy showpieces. The miracle of Beethoven's piano concerto is that it combines all the showmanship in the world with depth and sensitivity, especially in the woodwind accompaniments of many passages in the piece. For this performance, the DSO was joined by 2005 Van Cliburn finalist Davide Cabassi who played with exceptional dexterity and command. From my perfect vantage point, I could see his fingers moving so deftly across the keyboard that it didn't even seem to be a long span, that 88 keys was just a hop, skip and a jump for his reach. He had all the technical assurance one could ask for. His interpretation however left something to be desired. I felt that the majority of the performance was performed from forte to fortississimo, which was unnecessary given the timid accompaniment of the orchestra. The woodwinds were especially at fault here, and the principal bassoon and clarinet the greatest at fault. Overall though, everyone involved knew their stuff and were committed throughout, which was surprising and pleasing to me.

After an intermission that had the pianist signing autographs on his most recent album, the DSO was back on stage to play Brahms. As the conductor himself explained in his prefatory comments, this symphony is very much a personal statement and so is at heart, a passion-filled emotional piece that would require sensitivity on the part of the orchestra. Needless to say, that was sorely lacking in many instances of the performance. So much of the melodic work is carried out by the strings that a solid section is a requirement to pull the symphony off. Although there is a strong foundation there, the strings need a lot of work to sound more uniform and full. There were too many instances when individual violinists could be heard, which makes the sound flimsy, a no-no for a piece by Johannes Brahms. I felt that with more practice and direct work on their sound production, the orchestra will eventually be able to pull off Brahm's Fourth, along with any other symphony that can accommodate the limitations of stage space. The audience was respectful and appreciative of the performance, and the DSO is well-loved as evidenced by the almost 95% butt-in-seat percentage of the concert. Of course, in a small town, I am sure the Symphony is a major social event and no one would deign be absent. Fortunately for me, two were absent, and my friend and I were glad to occupy their seats for them.

Small towns are very different creatures than places like Chicago or Seattle. It was a fun and interesting change of pace to hear Brahms' Fourth in Dubuque, a day before my co-blogger heard it at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. I wonder which performance would win in a match-up? More on music and competition later.

1 comment:

Z. Carstensen said...

My guess is the SSO could play the pants off the DSO. Th orchestras turn in respectable performances on most nights. However, I do remember hearing on the public radio station a particularly painful performance of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony.

While folks in bigger cities worry about the health of their local orchestra, it is testament to the general health of the classical music that seats are full when a part-time orchestra like the DSO performs.