The Incomparable Sioux City Symphony Orchestra

Sioux City Symphony Orchestra: Arabian Nights

Orpheum Theatre
Sioux City, Iowa
September 28, 7:30

GRAMMY-winning composer Michael Daugherty, special guest of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra tonight, said that being in Sioux City was almost like being home.  In Daugherty’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, he says, there’s a theatre exactly like the Orpheum.  That may be so, but don’t be fooled: the action inside the Orpheum tonight was beyond compare. 

Daugherty was in town for the performance of his piece Dreamachine.  But he wasn’t the only guest of honor.  Performing Dreamachine alongside the orchestra was the world’s best percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie.  If you want to catch Glennie again in the states, I’m sorry, you can’t.  She made her only US appearance this year tonight in Sioux City.  If you missed the concert but want to see the performance, there’s hope: Daugherty chose to film tonight’s Dreamachine for release on YouTube.  This will be the only video recording of the piece.  Anywhere. 

Obviously, Glennie had plenty of solo work to do.  After all, if you’ve got her, use her.  And her presence on stage, as well as her musical performance, said a lot about the state of new American music.  Whatever reservations you might have about an innovative piece like Dreamachine, you can’t very well be alienated from it when Ms. Glennie is on stage playing instruments with looks of childish joy—and almost even mischief—on her face.  But Dreamachine isn’t all play and innovation.  It’s got heart, too, which becomes clear in the third movement.  When the orchestra enters at this point, it adds musical color and emotional complexity to the piece.  And during this stretch—my favorite in tonight’s Dreamachine—Glennie’s playing eases up, and she reminds us that virtuosity isn’t just about power but about control and subtlety.  It’s about how one stands out, yes, but also how a virtuoso can offer her necessary contribution to the whole. 

After intermission, the orchestra performed Scheherezade sans Evelyn Glennie but with no less firepower.  If you watched Glennie move across her instruments in Dreamachine, especially the miramba and vibraphone (the long ones), you saw how Daugherty wrote for her to use the entire instrument to its full effect.  The same can be said of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, except that his instrument, in this case, is the full orchestra.  Rimsky-Korsakov based his piece loosely on tales from the 1,001 Nights, which Scheherezade told to her husband, the king, who (fun fact) was about to kill her.  Don’t worry.  (Funner fact) Scheherezade survives by never finishing one story until the next night when she starts another.  But this music is no mere soundtrack; it accompanies nothing.  The music is the story, full of high highs and low lows.  The orchestra in tonight’s Scheherezade was as full-throated and full-throttle as I’ve seen and heard in some time.  The only time it seemed to back off was to allow for concertmaster Bacco Liu’s emotive violin solos, which Rimsky-Korsakov intended to represent Scheherezade’s storytelling voice. 

My only regret about the evening was the first piece, Joan Tower’s (short) “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”  It runs maybe three minutes, performed only by the brass and percussion.  I don’t regret that it was played, I just wish that there’d been more.  (There are six of these “Fanfares,” each inspired by a different female in the classical music world.)  Maybe this was Maestro Ryan Haskins’s way of pulling a Scheherezade on us.  As they say in show business, always leave them wanting more. 

As for the 2019/2020 SCSO season, there’s plenty more to come.  The question now is whether they can continue to perform up to the expectations they set tonight.