REVIEW: Brucemorchestra Orchestra Iowa's American salute creates majesty under summer's setting sun

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CEDAR RAPIDS – “I’d like to welcome you to Brucemore, where it’s always 70 degrees and sunny.”

That warm greeting from Brucemore Executive Director David Janssen received an even warmer reception from 3,000 people blanketing the sweeping front lawn for Sunday night’s Brucemorchestra extravaganza. (9/7/14)

This event has never been a mere concert. All ages have flocked to the historic estate since 2008, toting lavish picnics, tables, blankets and chairs to create our own little Chicago/Ravinia atmosphere for Orchestra Iowa’s stylish season launch.

The aim is to create an evening for all to enjoy, finding a perfect harmony between classical and popular genres. “American Salute” was all that and a bag of chips, to borrow a phrase from the ever effervescent maestro, Timothy Hankewich.

Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. How could you possibly go wrong with that triumvirate of 20th century American composers?

As the concert unrolled, the links between all three became stirringly obvious. Gershwin paved the way for Bernstein and Copland by creating a distinctly American idiom that moves fluidly from the Broadway to symphonic stages.

“They shared a singular talent of elevating American pop culture and folk music to the concert hall,” Hankewich said in an earlier interview.

That notion was magnificently displayed not only in the artistry of the Orchestra Iowa musicians, but in the deep velvety tones of bass/baritone soloist Kevin Deas of New York. He has performed beautifully with the ensemble in the past, but we saw another side to his sonorous talents in his expressive, joyous delivery of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and the silly animal noises he embraced with gusto in Copland’s “Bought Me a Cat.”

He had us the moment he opened his mouth to speak, his rich resonance revealing what one of my colleagues called “a magical voice,” as he told us he was so smitten with the concert site that he’d already snapped about 20 selfies.

His interpretation of “Bess, You is My Woman Now” was so tender and beautiful it brought tears to my eyes, and his bone-rattling “O Lawd, I’m On My Way” brought the “Porgy and Bess” segment to a lush and magnificent conclusion.

That same strength and majesty sent ripples over the audience on the opening call of Copland’s “Boatmen’s Dance,” and his glib tongue floated over the immense complexities of “Ching-a-ring Chaw,” which he made seem so easy. It isn’t. The lyrics and rhythms are completely vexing.

That also describes the tenor of the evening’s programming. All three composers are masters of complex rhythms that make their music equal parts challenging and daring to perform.

Orchestra Iowa’s stellar musicians skipped merrily over all the syncopations, and the perfect outdoor microphones let us hear the skittering flutes and oboes, the muted trumpets and the tinkling glockenspiel rising above the volume of the vast array of inherently louder instruments.

From the buoyant bounce of Bernstein’s “On the Town” to the fire of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and the solemn splendor of “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s masterpiece, “West Side Story,” the entire concert showcased the immense breadth and depth of talent from this ensemble performing majestically under a perfect night sky.