Erika Buiter–Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2019 – 7:15 p.m. Musicians trickle into Dordt’s B.J. Haan auditorium, cases and music in hand. The stage fills with college players, high school students, and adults. Chatter, tuning, and laughter intermingle into a cacophonous racket—and then Jennifer Frens, violinist and concert mistress, stands.
7:30 p.m. Like every NISO rehearsal, they tune three As, one for brass and woodwinds, one for cellos and bass, and one for violins and violas.
Unlike every NISO rehearsal, there are only 120 hours left until their next concert.
The Northwest Iowa Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert, “Piano Dreamer,” features the music of Jan Mulder, a Dutch pianist. Most NISO concerts require months of preparation, but, with Mulder absent, tonight is the orchestra’s first of two chances to practice together for the concert.
Parks Brawand, freshman violinist in NISO, first picked up a violin at age 4. A three-time South Dakota All-State Orchestra participant, Brawand arrived at Dordt with symphony experience.
“I played in SDSU’s symphony orchestra all four years of high school,” Brawand said. “NISO’s music is quite similar.”
Though surprised by the preparation time for the concert, Brawand enjoyed the experience.
“It’s kind of nice. For that first rehearsal, people are probably more focused and we get through a lot more because we have to prepare,” Brawand said. “I was really impressed. I like how high [in note range] a lot of our parts for the first violin go. They’re great renditions of some of my favorite hymns.”
The pieces picked include Mulder’s arrangements of Christian hymns and two original compositions—“Ocean of Dreams” and “Ocean of Dreams II.” Also in the black leather-bound folders were Aaron Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody” and Christian Krien’s “In Holland, Suite for Small Orchestra, IV. Wooden Shoe Dance.”
“I enjoyed [Mulder’s] Deer Symphony. I find a lot of his arrangements are going to be playable for us, but I think they’re going to be really rich-sounding with the pianist,” said Kirbee Nykamp. A 2008 Dordt alumna and violin teacher, Nykamp is in her 14th year with NISO.
“I think it’s fun that so many of these pieces are ones that this community in particular knows well,” Nykamp said.
Each title brings its own baggage – sudden key changes, difficult rhythms, and notes that soar high on the page. But with winter weather threatening and several pieces yet un-played, it is up to the players to perfect the mistakes before Saturday. Stanichar dismisses the symphony at 9:30 sharp—118 hours left until the concert.
A “fun” fundraiser
Beginning in 1986, NISO first played two concerts a year, adding the pops concert later to fill the area’s need for music.
“There used to be a concert series in Sioux Center called the Sioux County Concert Series, and there was a board, and it was entirely outside performers, and that was waning,” said Dr. Karen De Mol, professor emerita. “As that waned, that board asked NISO to take over some of that role.”
De Mol played as NISO’s principal clarinetist for 24 years. Today, she serves as its general manager and music director, helping behind-the-scenes. And, to keep NISO alive, fundraising is a necessity.
The pops concert functions as musical event and fundraiser, with guest conductors competing to take Stanichar’s podium. The winner, chosen by monetary votes, will conduct the “Wooden Shoe Dance.” The “fun” comes in with the winner’s costume—and conducting device.
“I remember Dr. Rens, who conducted with some sort of medical implement that I didn’t want to know what it was,” De Mol said. “And Josh Bowar, from the Sioux Center Christian School, all painted in yellow and blue. And bacon! They have so much fun with it.”
The conductor contest is one of NISO’s largest fundraisers. “It is a significant part of our budget,” De Mol said. “It varies a lot, from $6,000 a year to $16,000, I think was the most.”
But behind the fundraising, the concert hopes to attract people for its music.
“My favorite thing about the pops concerts is how accessible the music is to people who are perhaps less connected to the classical world,” Nykamp said. “The concert material is shorter, o it’s easier for people to stay engaged and excited about what they’re hearing.”
The final rehearsal
On Saturday, January 26, NISO convenes on stage. It is 2:30 p.m. Five hours left. Already, there are problems.
“Wooden Shoe Dance,” is pulling apart. Stanichar paces the auditorium as the orchestra plays.
After, he reminds the woodwinds that they are rushing. With no steady percussion beat—or conductor—to fall back on, the symphony orchestra has to rely on each other to stay in tempo.
The guest conductor, Stanichar reminds the orchestra, there will be distractions. Last year featured Nathan Frens dressed as bacon. This year, it could be anything—so they practice the piece again.
And then it is time for Jan Mulder to take the stage.
Tall, curly-haired and serious, Mulder’s speech is inflected with a thick Dutch accent.
His son, an even taller carbon-copy of Mulder, darts around the auditorium, listening for imbalance between the piano and the orchestra.
“I was really impressed by his artistry and skill,” said Karissa Van Surksum, Dordt senior and trumpeter in NISO. “I also thought he communicated meaning and depth, like he truly cherished the songs he was playing, through his performance. He was a great soloist to work with–very relaxed and easy to work with, as well as very talented.”
For two hours, NISO perfects the pieces. Stanichar restarts beginnings of pieces that are not up to scratch. Mulder adds a new musical flourish on the second run-through of a piece. The orchestra’s sound buries the piano’s, bringing the possibility of mic’ing Mulder, but Stanichar decides the orchestra can be quieter.
At 4:30 p.m., with three hours till the concert, Stanichar asks Mulder if he needs anything else.
“Coffee,” Mulder says.
NISO Presents “Piano Dreamer”
7:15 p.m. 15 minutes left. The word spreads between players – mutes on for all songs, a last-second decision by Stanichar. For strings, this means wedging a piece of rubber on the bridge of their instrument. For brass and woodwinds, hands and other devices keep their sound quiet.
Above, students fill in the balcony. Below, the guest conductors sit in the pews.
7:30 p.m. Stage lights up, auditorium lights down. It’s concert time.
NISO’s board members introduce the conductor candidates—Steve Grond, a school superintendent, Nancy Landegent, a receptionist, and T.J. Speer, a banker. The fourth, Katricia Meendering, is absent, attending a family funeral.
Reminding the audience to spend their dollars to vote for their favorite, the board members leave the mic. Frens plays an A. The orchestra tunes.
And then, silence.
A side-door creaks open. Stanichar power walks to the podium as the orchestra stands in unison. Applause lingers in the air. Unseen by the audience, Stanichar points three fingers down like an “M,” reminding the orchestra to use their mutes.
Stanichar flicks the baton up—and the concert begins.
After “Variations on a Shaker Melody,” Mulder joins the orchestra. His shiny shoes gleam under the lights, patterned-suit and dark shirt setting him apart from the orchestra’s tuxes, white shirts, and dresses. Simple and serious, he touches the keys of piano with familiarity.
The first half speeds by with applause and bows by Mulder. Despite the last-minute mutes, the orchestra overpowers the piano in “The Glory”–but then the lights go up.
Attendees swarm the lobby to buy chocolate truffles and “vote” for the conductor candidates. Fifteen minutes later, the lights flash. The orchestra returns to the stage, the pews fill, and a board member takes the mic—the count is in.
With $6,725 raised in total, the fundraiser is a modest success. But the contest winner? T.J. Speer, dressed in suit and tie. He takes the podium, raising a golf club’s head cover.
At a nod from Frens, they begin. Speer waves his cover at random while the orchestra diligently ignores him, playing at a steady tempo – a near-miracle, given the issues they faced less than five hours ago.
“That was harder than I thought it would be,” Speer says, walking off the stage. The concert proceeds with few issues and several standing ovations. Before the last encore, Mulder takes the mic.
“It is an honor to be here in Iowa for the first time,” Mulder says. “I came to this beautiful country ten years ago and started in Holland, Michigan, with the wooden shoes and tulips, so that was very nice, but when the snow comes, it is like this high—” Mulder gestures near his forehead. “—for like 6 months, so you can’t do a lot of concerts.” Eliciting laughter, Mulder describes moving to too-hot Florida and then North Carolina. Finally, “It is an honor to be here with this beautiful orchestra, fantastic conductor,” Mulder says.
Returning to the piano for one last song –”Ocean of Dreams II” – the concert ends on a high note—literally. The lights go up. Pews empty. Instruments are packed away.
“I thought the Saturday concert went pretty well, especially considering that we only spend about four and a half hours practicing for it, and only two with the soloist,” Van Surksum said.