UI Symphony Orchestra and Choirs

The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra and combined Choirs, conduced by Dr. Timothy Stalter, who is the director of choral activities at the University of Iowa, presented an annual concert on December 4, 2013 at 7:30pm in the Iowa Memorial Union. It was a grand and spectacular event for all everyone in Iowa City to enjoy. It brought audience members to different time periods as well as to enjoy the psalms of the Old Testament. The program included pieces composed by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, which produced a performance that highlighted the development of choral and orchestral psalm settings, from the Classical period to twentieth century.

The first piece to open the concert was Symphony of Psalms (1930; revised 1948), composed by Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky composed this piece for the fifteenth anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Originally he considered composing a symphony, however, he did not want it to follow the traditional from. The piece lacks violins, violas and clarinets, yet features two added pianos to create a different sounding type of work that is more serious and somber. This lack of high strings and clarinets reflected the composer’s philosophy that music should be objective, and not overly emotional. The piece started with a solemn opening with dissonance that strengthens the darkness that the harmony creates, and the choir did an excellent job in capturing the contrast between spirituality and intensity. In addition, what impressed me the most was the choir’s very clear and crisp diction. Here is the text for this piece:

http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~tan/Stravinsky/soptext.html

After the exciting conclusion of the first piece, the second piece, Vesperase solennes de confessore by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed. Both the Orchestra and Choir were able to quickly change gears to play in this completely different style. This piece included six movements and included solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). Voice majors at the University of Iowa performed all of the voice solos. Penelope Makeig sang soprano, Lisa Neher sang alto, James Judd sang tenor, and Sean Lynch sang bass. The vocal soloists’ pure timbres stood out from the choir, and the beautiful contrast between solo voices and choir made the piece even more special. Each movement of Vespers Psalms had a distinct character, which even included an archaic fugue in which Mozart manipulated the subject in a variety of ways in the fourth movement. In contrast, the fifth movement featured one of Mozart’s most memorable melodies, a serene solo line that floats over the orchestra and chorus. The melismatic solo soprano with the simple violin accompaniment was very heart warming, and Ms. Makeig did a fantastic job on her performance.

The concert concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Der.114. Psalm: “Da Israel aus Agypten zog.” This piece is a compact masterpiece, and I think it was a great piece to end the evening. The choir was very broad, homophonic, and full of majestic features. During the performance of this piece, lights were even changed from dim to bright. I wondered, was this a planned effect to go along with the music? But luckily, I had a short conversation with Dr. Stalter after the concert about the lights and he said, “I have no idea what happened [with the lights], I figured I have to just keep going.” Obviously then, the lights changing were not planned special effects like I had thought, but it still made me wonder… Why not try a different approach to popularize new music and to attract new audiences to these types of concert, maybe we could use the lighting or other theatrical special effects to strengthen the musical effects for new music. Why not give it a try?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “UI Symphony Orchestra and Choirs

  1. Aaron Ziegler

    One of the things that was really interesting to me about the Stravinsky was the use of low voices. Leaving out the violins and violas really kept the whole range of the piece quite low. In addition to that the tuba and trombones were usually near the low end of their range (I was sitting next to them so I heard a lot of their parts). In the Timpani part, especially the 3rd movement, he kept the notes at the bottom of the range in each drum which sort of obscures the pitch and turns the drums into more of “low rumble.” I think he intentionally chose to use the instruments, and ranges that he did to create a very dark sound in the low voices in contrast to the higher woodwind melodies. It was a great concert, and I was really impressed by the choirs ability to adapt to the completely different compositional styles. They did a great job making the difficult intervals used in the Stravinsky seem effortless, then totally shifting gears into the Mozart, and finally providing the huge sound necessary to make the Mendelssohn as powerful as it was.

  2. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is one of my favorite pieces of “classical contemporary” music. And I put that in quotes due to the fact that it fits beautifully on a program with composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms as well as composers such as Bartok, Britten and Reich. Knowing how difficult this piece is to put together I was amazed at how beautifully easy the choir made it seem. The first alto entrance is at best spotty in several professional recordings that I have heard and our choir’s alto section nailed it. I couldn’t stop smiling, mostly because a few of those altos are my students and they have worked so hard.
    The harmonies in the Symphony of Psalms are so very close and chromatic and I can only imagine what some of the musicians involved, who are not really into “new” music, must have thought upon the first few rehearsals. Though, in talking to many members of the choir and orchestra it was their favorite piece on the concert. From what I have heard it was the only piece that was challenging not because of the notes or the rhythms, but because of the notes AND the rhythms, as well as the chromatic harmonies and the unorthodox treatment of the text.
    One thing I can always count on with Stravinsky is that the Rite of Spring rhythms and some of the primitive motives will show up. They aren’t exact, but the soprano rhythms and the pianos together were reminiscent of the Intro to the Rite of Spring.
    Being a singer I am very proud of our choir and being a retired violinist I am blown away by our orchestra on this concert. I have never heard them more in tune to each other and the choir. On the whole – amazing job and thank you to all of those involved!

  3. What great programming! Like Janet said, I think the Stravinsky fits very well on the program with Mozart and Mendelssohn. I was very interested in your discussion on the lighting and how (or if) that can play a role in making “classical” music more accessible, or more attractive. Last year my husband and I had season tickets to the Des Moines Symphony and I was surprised to find that with every piece they change the lighting on the shell behind the orchestra. Some pieces displayed a purple color, some orange, etc. Although this might seem like a cool effect for some concert goers, I was actually a little put off by it. Personally, some of the colors that they showed didn’t match the color I would’ve displayed with that particular piece. From that perspective, I’m not sure if lighting makes concert scene more accessible.
    Anyway, I congratulate all who were involved in the concert- it’s so great to see so many musicians working together to create something magnificent!

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