Charles Eble Memorial Concert given in Iowa

Charles Eble Memorial Concert given in Iowa
Bruckner in Iowa - A recollection of a memorable event
By John F. Berky - Editor,

Bruckner performances are rare occurrences in the United States (although the trend is improving), and they have literally been unheard in the State of Iowa – until now.

For those of you unfamiliar with Iowa and its geographic location, it is located in the center of the continental United States and is on the eastern edge of the region known as the Great Plains. The Great Plains is a vast area with wide horizons and some of the most fertile soil on the planet. It covers 11 of Midwestern states and parts of central Canada. The Mississippi River marks Iowa’s eastern boundary. During the summer, it is not uncommon to see fields of corn extending to the horizon in all directions. Farming is a big business here.

This is not to say that Iowa is a cultural “backwater.” The state boasts some the largest universities in the country with strong music programs. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University both have 30,000 students and most of the elementary and secondary schools have music education programs in place as well.

But vast farms and rural settings are not conducive to the staging of large scale cultural events and it is a rare occurrence for the orchestras in Iowa to program anything as ambitious as a Bruckner Symphony. So it was with a great deal of pleasure that the Bruckner Society of America was able to sponsor a Bruckner concert in two different cities.

If you have read some of the information on this website, you will know that the Bruckner Society of America, originally founded in 1931, was recently reactivated after ceasing most activity in 1998. From 1960 until the cessation of activities, the Bruckner Society was headquartered in Iowa City. The president of the Society was Charles Eble, the proprietor of Eble Music. Charles Eble passed away in 2009 but thanks to the help of David Hempel, the present owner of Eble Music and the executor of Mr. Eble’s estate, the Bruckner Society was reactivated and existing funds were allocated into several categories:

  1. The digitalization of all past Bruckner Society publications including the journal, “Chord and Discord,” and the writings of Gabriel Engel.
  2. The re-casting of the Julio Kilenyi Medal of Honor to be given to those people who have furthered an appreciation of the life and music of Anton Bruckner.
  3. The publication (upcoming) of a brochure that re-addresses the issue of Bruckner’s symphonies and the various performing versions – making use of information that has come to light since the publication of Robert Simpson’s booklet, “The Bruckner Versions Simplified.”
  4. The audio restoration of the 1924 Oscar Fried recording of the Bruckner Symphony No. 7 correcting pitch errors that have plagued earlier offerings. This CD is available for sale for $30.00 as a membership incentive and fundraiser for the Society.
  5. A small budget to sustain the Society as it starts its operations.
  6. The funding of a memorial concert in memory of Charles Eble.

It is this final project that took place over the weekend of February 10 and 11th of 2012.

The pair of performances were given by Orchestra Iowa and the presentations took place at Sinclair Auditorium in Cedar Rapids and at West High School in Iowa City. The concert consisted of a single work – Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5. The conductor was the Orchestra’s Music Director, Timothy Hankewich.

Back in June of 2008, Cedar Rapids was hit with a devastating flood where the Mississippi River rose over 31 feet above its normal water level. The 500 year flood plain was breached and the entire downtown commercial area was submerged. The Orchestra’s home, the historic Paramount Theater was completely flooded and is now under reconstruction. In spite of these enormous setbacks, the orchestra and its music director were ready and willing to take on their first encounter with the music of Anton Bruckner.

My air travel and airport arrival were uneventful. I was to be met by one of the orchestra players and taken to his home. When I saw someone standing at the arrival area holding up a sign that read “BRUCKNER,” I knew I had found my man. I was like a moth attracted to a flame.

The Friday night concert took place in Cedar Rapids. After a brief pre-concert presentation where I had an opportunity to explain the significance of this concert and the music to the audience, I settled into the audience for what was a remarkable performance. Timothy Hankewich repeatedly referred to himself as a “Bruckner Virgin.” It was his first time conducting Bruckner’s music. But his fresh approach made for some fresh insights and he made excellent use of tempo variation to provide an ebb and flow to the music. There were times, most notably in the massive finale, where the music slowed to focus on some of the minute orchestral interchanges and then as the music gathered force, the tempos would accelerate rapidly.

The Fifth Symphony is clearly a symphony that tests the endurance of any orchestra. The strings rarely rest for 80 minutes and the brass section is driven to exhaustion during the rousing finale and pity the poor orchestra where the brass section runs out of steam in the final moments. If the orchestra can’t mount that final peak, it can undermine all that came before it. Happily, the corn-fed brass section was up for the challenge and they brought the symphony to a rousing conclusion.

But upon reflection, it may not have been corn that nourished these stoic players. It may have been hops. After the concert, many of us gathered at the orchestra’s lounge adjacent to their soon-to-be-renovated theater. There I discovered that an orchestra trumpet player was also a local brewer. As I watched the player leave the lounge carrying an empty beer keg, I knew for sure that I wasn’t in Connecticut and I thought that I might have stumbled upon the reason for the orchestra’s stamina.

The second performance took place on Saturday night in Iowa City. Consistency was evident in that there was not much variation in the presentation. Having a full performance under their belt, some of the playing was more assured, but due to the way that many musicians play in different orchestras on different days, there were several new members to the brass section but they performed admirably.

This was a very enjoyable and successful venture. The great work of Charles Eble was recognized by two excellent Bruckner performances. In addition I had an opportunity to finally meet David Hempel who was so instrumental in the initiative to revive the Bruckner Society of America. Finally, we used the opportunity to convene the annual meeting of the Bruckner Society and to set our sights on some goals for the year ahead.

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