"Landscape Iowa" Symphony Concert March 2

  • Posted on Mar 05, 2013

Have to say, last Saturday's Symphony Concert in Cedar Falls was special.  

Jason Weinberger, conductor, CEO, and creative mind behind the innovative programming that drives this excellent Waterloo-Cedar Falls Iowa regional symphony, wanted to offer an evening that celebrates the Midwest.  

It's our land of real seasons, after all, where the summer really is a summer and the winter, seriously now,  a winter.  And the springs and autumns offer glories beyond description, where the land comes to life explosively, and then locks up tight seven months later with hard freezes,  and stays tight and brutally cold for months.  


And beauty.  Long-time Midwestern photographer Bill Witt has captured the Midwest's beauty in hundreds of images, many of them published in "Enchanted by Prairie" (University of Iowa, 2009). Jason Weinberger's idea was to capture the beauty of the Midwest using Witt's photography, as well as symphonic music by well-known composers who celebrated the Midwest, Anton Dvorak and Aaron Copland, and a newly commissioned piece by Jon Chennette,  "Rural Symphony."  

Jason also wanted language, bless his heart, and asked me to narrate several pieces that also celebrate the Midwest.   So Bill Witt, Jason Weinberger, and I met and worked up the program for last Saturday's symphony concert Cedar Falls. 

It began with James Hearst's 1966 poem, "Landscape Iowa,"-- 

No one who lives here

Knows how to tell the stranger

What it’s like, the land I mean,

Farms all gently rolling,

Squared off by roads and fences,

Creased by streams, stubbled with groves,

A land not known by mountain’s height

Or tides of either ocean,

A land in its working clothes,

Sweaty with dew, thick-skinned loam,

A match for the men who work it,

Breathes dust and pollen, wears furrows

And meadows, endures drought and flood.

Muscles swell and bulge in horizons

Of corn, lakes of purple alfalfa,

A land drunk on spring promises,

Half crazed with growth—I can no more

Tell the secrets of its dark depths

Than I can count the banners in a

Farmer’s eye at spring planting. 

Hearst's poem captures the feel of Iowa perfectly for me--"a land in its working clothes."  

The poem that stopped me in my tracks, though,  was "Becoming Prairie in Dickinson County,"  written by John Peterson, and published in Michael Carey's book Voices on the Landscape: Contemporary Iowa Poets.  (Loess Hillls Books, 1996)   It's about a man who chooses to become a plot of prairie land, and "in my mind" this makes him completely happy.  Here's how it ends: 

For now in my mind I have given up my job, my house, 
And all my enemies have forgotten me, 
Now that I have gone to prairie. 
My wife still visits; 
She sees my transformation is complete.  
I have grown resilient, shabby, responsive to the faintest heartbeat 
pulsing on these ragged hills. 
She will finally know why, 
Will finally see me as lovely, 
And she will know that only now may I truly disappear
from happiness.   

This was Jon Chennet's inspiration for his "Rural Symphony," and I can see why.  I read it before the last Chennet's last movement, the one he says was inspired by "Becoming Prairie."  

It was a splendid evening, I thought; the orchestra played a challenging concert with skill and precision, and the images and poetry blended seamlessly.  Here's 
George Day's review that appeared in today's Courier: 

It was a snow-weary crowd that attended the March concert of the Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday night. Their spirits  soon soared, however, as they watched and heard  the perfectly splendid show  that unfolded before them.

Jason Weinberger, artistic director, designed and  directed a far from  ordinary concert. This one consisted of music and images and words that reflect the atmosphere of rural America, its charm and its beauty.  The words by several writers were narrated by Scott Cawelti and the images were photographs   of the Iowa landscape taken by Bill Witt. The pictures appeared on a huge screen above the Orchestra and they quickly attracted everyone's awed attention. 

Three pieces were on the program.  The first featured a new composition by Jonathan Chennette entitled "Rural Symphony." It is a commissioned work designed to reflect through music "the rural life and rural landscape” of Iowa  "at the turn of the century."  There were three movements entitled:  Row Crops and Livestock, Milking Time, and Becoming Prairie.

I am not sure if the music of the first and final movements evoked mental images of row crops, livestock, or the prairie.   But the Milking Time section had some percussive sounds that may well have been those of a milking parlor.  Overall, though the Chenette piece aided by Witt's stunning beautiful photographs and Cawelti’s poetic readings did conjure up a sense of a peaceful country atmosphere.

Surely the music of the Rural Symphony must owe more than a small degree of its sounds or moods of nature to the work of Aaron Copland, the acknowledged master of what might be called "American landscape music".

It was Copland's music we heard next:     "The Tender Land, 

Suite."  Originally composed as an opera with the setting designated as a midwestern farm in the spring at high school graduation time, the Suite is an orchestral concert version of the opera, and a perfect choice for this program.  The music is very much in Copland's distinctive idiom:  flowing harmonies, smooth and dream-like rhythms, and joyful tonal effects.  It is optimistic in mood and on this occasion splendidly performed by the ensemble under Weinberger's sensitive direction.

The final work on the program was Antonin Dvorak's Suite in A, sometimes called the "American Suite." For this, the WCFSO was joined by selected members of the Northern Iowa Youth Orchestra. Like the others on the program the piece is could easily be seen as a hymn to the natural beauties of Iowa landscape. Certainly it is typical Dvorak in its shape and sound, its lively dance-like tunes and bold crescendos as well.  There may well be, as has been suggested, some Native American rhythms in the finale (Allegro) movement.   Again we were treated to some of Bill Witt's drop dead beautiful pictures of Iowa at its best.And some of Iowa's best writing and speaking, too,  courtesy of James Hearst's poetry expertly delivered by Scott Cawelti.

This concert was a perfect antidote for the winter blues as could easily be sensed in the mood of the audience as they filed out into the frigid March night. 

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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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