wcfsymphony to present visual and aural experience


COURTESY PHOTO/wcfsymphony


When the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony (wcfsymphony) performs its concert “To the New World” at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 13 in the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, the music of Antonin Dvorak will be a theme that’s “very close to home,” according to artistic director and conductor Jason Weinberger.

“Dvorak is well-known for the time that he spent in Iowa,” Weinberger said. “He’s the only classical composer who ever spent time here.”

In 1892, Dvorak was hired as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City and left his native Bohemia to travel to America. Dvorak was “looking for a dose of his native culture,” according to Weinberger, and spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, which had a strong Czech community. It was there where he wrote some of his most famous American works, many of which the symphony will perform on April 13.

“That’s why we wanted to focus on him — it’s our home story as an Iowa orchestra,” Weinberger said.

“Pretty much all Iowa symphonies do Dvorak,” said Gary Kelley, former UNI art department professor and a key collaborator for the event’s visual narrative. “But nobody’s done it like we’re going to do it.”

The wcfsymphony Dvorak concert will focus much more heavily on storytelling than a traditional orchestral performance, according to Weinberger.

“It’s not a typical concert with symphonic movements in a set order,” he said. “We have a set of pieces chosen specifically for their relevance to the story — where Dvorak was from and how he came to Iowa — so many of those are individual sections of larger pieces. We picked music that would help support the narrative.”

That narrative describes Dvorak’s childhood in Bohemia and his journey to America, culminating in his summer spent in Iowa.

“You can’t really understand [Dvorak’s] impact on American music without understanding where he came from,” Weinberger said, explaining that the distinctiveness of Dvorak’s music comes from his ability to fuse Bohemian folk music with the more classical style of composers like Beethoven.

“If we didn’t start with his early experiences absorbing his own culture, then we couldn’t explain why he was so important in America.”

The storytelling aspect of the concert will also be strengthened through a unique collaboration between the symphony and Kelley, who is also a world-renowned artist and has produced artwork for Time Magazine, Barnes and Noble, Google and many other clients.

“Gary and Jason have explored the idea of a symphony concert not only being an aural experience but also a visual experience,” said Rich Frevert, executive director of the wcfsymphony.

The symphony has previously collaborated with Kelley on other productions, including a concert of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and a version of “The Nutcracker” influenced by the music of Duke Ellington. Kelley’s artwork has been projected onto a screen behind the symphony, with technological advances that transform the concert into a theatrical or operatic experience.

This use of visual elements during an orchestra concert is not a new concept, according to Weinberger.

“Using video screens has become a pervasive part of live symphonic performance,” he said. “The challenge is that oftentimes musicians are forced to follow the visuals. In a lot of ways, that lessens the performance, since performers and conductors aren’t free to offer an interpretation of the music.”

That, Weinberger said, is why he founded his company The New Live, which focuses on incorporating technology into musical performances by designing the visuals to instead follow the music. The New Live’s technical director, UNI grad Jacob Meade, has been instrumental in adapting Gary’s art for the screen during the wcfsymphony collaborations.

“Jacob is able to design the visual presentation so that there is flexibility built into the visuals without changing the story,” Weinberger said, “so our musicians don’t have to worry about the screen. There’s not a single other orchestra of our size in the world that has that capability.”

Not only do Meade’s visuals allow for wider musical interpretation, they also bring Kelley’s art to life. Kelley began the process by listening to the Dvorak pieces and conducting historical research to put the music in context.

“I’m looking at visual artists that were living and making art at the same time that Dvorak was making music,” Kelley said.

Many of those artists were printmakers who used woodblock printing, which Kelley is emulating by rolling out printmaking ink onto paper. He estimates that the concert will feature about 30 complete pieces of art.

Once Kelley has completed a piece, he and Meade use video to make them fade, turn or shift. Rather than pure animation, Kelley said they focus on the way the camera follows a still piece of art, moving the camera rather than the artwork itself.

“I want it to feel like original, handmade art,” Kelley said. “I definitely don’t want it to feel like it’s a digital superhero movie. I want it to feel organic.”

Miller emphasized that students of all majors have something to learn from the event, noting that student tickets are only $10. He encouraged students to attend the pre-event talkback session at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, where Weinberger and Kelley will offer their perspectives and take questions about the collaboration.

The symphony is also releasing a zine, or a small-circulation magazine, advertising the event. The launch for the zine, designed and created by Kelley, will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 14, at Montage in Cedar Falls.

All the collaborators are looking forward to the event as a chance to present classical music in an innovative way.

“The concert will be a good reflection on Dvorak and help expand the mood of his music,” Kelley said. “The deeper we get into it, the more exciting it gets.”