Orchestra Iowa Masterworks II, 'Homecoming' featuring Conor Hanick, Piano
Saturday, Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m., Paramount Theatre; Sunday, Nov. 20, 2 p.m., Coralville Center for the Performing Arts
Lasting 100 years is clearly something for any arts organization to celebrate.
“It gives an illusion of permanence,” says Orchestra Iowa music director Timothy Hankewich. “But nowhere is it written that a community will have a symphony orchestra.”
In recent decades, many orchestras have folded in the United States. The continuous existence of Orchestra Iowa (known as the Cedar Rapids Symphony for much of its existence) deserves to be lauded as a remarkable achievement, the aggregate work of many people down through the years.
Full disclosure: my father, Richard Williams, was the music director from 1970 through 1981. There were previous directors: Joseph Kitchen (1923-1952) and Henry Denecke (1952-1970). Christian Tiemeyer (1981-2006) succeeded my father. Hankewich has been director since 2006.
When it began, Maestro Kitchen and the orchestra members were unpaid volunteers. It wasn’t until Denecke took over as director that it became a professional orchestra. The Cedar Rapids Symphony performed its first concert on April 13, 1923, in Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium, and continued there for over 50 years. In 1975, the newly restored Paramount Theatre became the orchestra’s permanent home.
The symphony started out with just a few concerts each year before the arrival of Richard Williams. In 1970, the orchestra’s board of directors hired Williams to fulfill their ambitious plans for expansion. During Williams’ tenure as conductor, the orchestra grew its season to a series of eight pairs of concerts on Friday and Saturday nights.
“The community has decided to pursue a course of professionalism,” Hankewich said of that transition. This changed the nature of the orchestra as a business. “It becomes a mathematical problem to solve because tickets that audience members will purchase will only cover perhaps 20 to 30 percent of the actual expense.”
The Paramount’s sale to the city and subsequent restoration was funded in large part by donations from businessman and philanthropist Peter Bezanson. But things have changed since the ’70s. Financial support for Orchestra Iowa, the name the organization adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 flood, has become more diffuse.
“Switching from a donor base of a few high profile patrons and benefactors to a much more broad based support system from our audience and supporters has been probably the biggest change in our financial planning since my tenure,” Hankewich said.
The centennial season, which kicks off Sept. 17 with Brucemorchestra, includes three world premieres by composers with Iowa ties: UNI Professor Nancy Hill Cobb, Dubuque native Michael Gilbertson, and Coe College’s Jerry Owen. The anniversary season will also include pianist Conor Hanick, who grew up in Iowa City. Hanick’s first performance with the symphony was in the wake of the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood.
“He was a terrific pianist then,” Hankewich said, “but to see him go on and perform with the New York Philharmonic … and to perform with great artists like Pierre Boulez — it’s neat to see how the investment a community has made in its local talent has paid off and to celebrate their achievements by bringing them back.”
The audience for classical music has been largely white over the years, but Orchestra Iowa is trying to change that.
“Our audiences have seen soloists of color way more often than they have in the past,” Hankewich said. “We have presented new music of composers of color as well as a lot more diversity and sort of gender representation in the music that we play.”
After enduring and flourishing for a century, Orchestra Iowa’s future seems secure.
“I am very grateful and very honored and very thrilled that our orchestra has not only survived for 100 years,” Hankewich said, “but we also live in a community that loves its orchestra.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.