Planes, Trains, and Fiddlin’ Okies

On the eve of Halloween, one might have expected to hear Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain at the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra Concert, but instead the audience was thrilled in different ways.

The program began with the only piece of music written prior to the 20th century- Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, WWV 49.  This was played with great strength and energy and then was followed by more recent works in chronological order.

Next on the program was the Symphony, Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith. With its large tonal implications, this piece is easier for concertgoers to digest than many of its other 20th century counterparts. Also, the music was accompanied by corresponding images of the Grunewald painting that inspired the work. The appropriate images were displayed behind the orchestra with each movement.

Following the intermission, the orchestra opened the second half with a lovely piece motivated by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night. Michael Cash, the composer, not only wrote the program notes, but was also present at the concert, helping the audience to feel even more connected to the music and the music-making process as a whole. The composer truly reached success here as the music so accurately described the painting. Again the performance was supported by images of the famous painting in the background.

The guest performer of the night was Kyle Dillingham, an Oklahoma City University graduate who has made his way fiddling across the globe. Known as “Oklahoma’s Musical Ambassador” this tall fiddler brought an immeasurable amount of energy to the stage. He first appeared on stage for the Iowa premiere performance of Wiley Post- Tone Poem for Violin and Orchestra. The program notes were extremely appropriate and interesting in this case as they were written by the composer himself, Callen Clarke (another Oklahoma native). Clarke sets the stage for his piece, explaining the difficulty of setting someone’s life story to music. He grafts in a quote from Mendelssohn, champions the cause of the tone poem, and defends music’s far reaching effect on human emotion and experience.  Within this context, the audience was well prepared to hear a newly composed piece of music and be able to identify with it and understand it from the opening piano introduction. Another aid for the listener was the projection of pictures of Wiley Post that were displayed directly behind the orchestra. This made it possible for the audience to listen even more intently as they tried to associate the sounds they were hearing with the life experiences depicted in the pictures.

The last piece on the program was Orange Blossom Special, an arrangement by Dillingham himself. This 1938 American tune was originally written to commemorate the passenger train. Dillingham’s arrangement emphasized the instrumental effects that represent the sounds of a train and include the whole orchestra. The first known recording of the original song can be found here. It was a lively ending, and pushed the limits of usual concert programming expectations.

Although it was an enjoyable concert, I did find the programming to be very interesting. With the exception of the Wagner, all of the pieces were composed within the last 80 years. The composers and arranger of the entire second half of the program were all born after 1970. Now, none of these works were laden with the extreme complexity that so often pervades new music and strips it of audible melodic interest, yet at the same time I could have really used a movement of a Mozart symphony (or something of that sort) somewhere in between all of this to cleanse the pallet and provide some refined clarity of sound. From my perception the audience handled everything well and was engaged the whole time, but who’s to say it might have been better if a Baroque or Classical piece were thrown into the mix as well?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Planes, Trains, and Fiddlin’ Okies

  1. fbenitess

    It was a very interesting concert to play, this one! During rehearsals, Dr. William LaRue Jones and Kyle Dillingham told us Wiley Post’s life story and with that I could understand more how each section of the music connects with some life event’s of his life. Another interesting fact of the concert, as noted by the author’s post, is the more than usual new pieces being performed. It’s good to be able to play those new piece in a large ensemble instead of the usual smaller ones.

  2. I agree with the other comment: it was an interesting concert to play and it’s good that so many new pieces were performed in the larger ensemble. Too many times to large orchestras get “stuck” in performing pieces that are known and comfortable, granted, Hindemith is rarely comfortable at any level of performance. I believe that the second half of the concert stretched the ensemble in a different way than the first half. We, as musicians, are trained to be able to perform the standard repertoire and the repertoire that is being performed by the big name orchestras around the world. What Wiley Post did, and Starry Night, was bring us out of that mindset and say, “There’s other kinds of music out there!”

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