ISU Symphony Orchestra to visit Marshalltown
The Iowa State University Symphony Orchestra will be paying a visit to Marshalltown in just under two weeks, and the community is invited out to enjoy a free performance at 7 p.m. on Dec. 1 at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center.
Jonathan Govias, the director of orchestral activities at ISU, as well as the conductor for the symphony, often looks for opportunities to expand his students’ horizons when it comes to their performances, both by visiting new locations and performing wide varieties of music.
For the upcoming performance, Govias chose several unique musical compositions, and as he decided on the pieces that would go into the program, he looked for ways to create an overarching narrative for the audience with the chosen music.
“I’m always looking for the right kind of thing for the orchestra, and I have wanted to do a piece by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a Black British composer, for some time, but the question was how to frame it? How do we contextualize it for an audience?” Govias asked.
As he considered the Ballade in A minor by Coleridge Taylor, he found Alexander Borodin’s Symphony No. 3, which is rarely performed. “Not for lack of musical merit,” in Govias’ words, but instead because it is incomplete. There are only two movements in the piece, and these movements were completed and orchestrated by Borodin’s friend, Russian composer Alexander Glazunov.
Govias thought that the simplest solution would be to bring the two works together, and he also added another work by Borodin, “Notturno” from String Quartet No. 2. Some may be familiar with the song, as it was used for the soundtrack in “The Little Matchgirl” Disney short from 2006. It was arranged for a violin solo and orchestra by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov.
ISU Morrill Professor of Music Jonathan Sturm will be performing the violin solo in the piece, and he brings 55 years of experience to the table. He received his music approximately a month ago and has been working to perfect his performance since then. Sturm said he had never heard this specific arrangement of the piece before, and he found it to be relatively unique.
“I think one of the reasons why the arrangement is not popular is it’s very technically difficult and the technical difficulty is something that I have made changes to, to make it work better, because the mood of the music is supposed to be very calm and relaxing. ‘Nocturne’ literally means night piece, or a piece to calm you down at night,” Sturm said. “This arrangement just turns it into a big, virtuoso show piece, with all kinds of sounds that the violin is making that don’t really contribute to the original mood of the piece.”
Sturm said he has played the Nocturne as a string quartet piece “hundreds of times” in his life, but never as a solo, and he felt some modifications to the violin arrangement would make it sound better.
“I think the main challenge is to make that extra technique sound good in a piece that’s supposed to sound relaxed and very intimate. If you have a piece where the mood is generally intimate, and you arrange it to make it very extroverted, then you’ve really changed the character of the piece completely. So I’m trying to keep some of the extroverted qualities, but mostly preserve the intimacy of the movement when I’ve made my changes,” Sturm said.
This will be the first time Sturm has played in the ISU Symphony Orchestra for about 15 years, so he is looking forward to playing with them again. Though he hasn’t performed with ISU for some time, he keeps those muscles primed and ready to go as the concertmaster, or the lead violinist, with the Des Moines Symphony.
The Dec. 1 performance, which should last just over an hour, will conclude with the Ballade by Coleridge Taylor.
“The intention, on my part at least, is to approximate the narrative and the emotional trajectory of a full symphony,” Govias said.
Govias feels the composition by Coleridge Taylor will be a good finale for the program, but he believes it is an important part of the performance for other reasons as well.
“I think it works very well in terms of my objective, which was to try to come up with a completion of the symphony, but it’s also very important as part of our pedagogical, but also our moral and ethical responsibilities as instructors to make sure our students have exposure to music by writers from outside of the — what we might call the Western European white male canon,” Govias said. “The idea is to make sure that we are not only performing works from one era or one region of the world, but something that is more representative of the world in which we live.”
In addition to the piece by Coleridge Taylor, Govias said they will be opening with Danzón No. 1, a piece written by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.
Following the main performance, the ISU Symphony Orchestra will perform an encore with the MHS Orchestra, led by Orchestra Director Derek Claussen. In the spirit of the holiday season, they will be playing “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson.
Govias said he wanted to offer them the opportunity to play with his students in order to support the MHS orchestra program and expose MHS students to music at a higher level.
“We want to support their program through our performance. We want to make sure their students get the exposure that they deserve,” Govias said. “It is pedagogically good for my students to work with students who are only just a few years younger, but on a different trajectory in high school as opposed to university, to encourage and inspire them and I think it’s good for the Marshalltown students too.”
Claussen was excited when he learned that the ISU Symphony would be visiting Marshalltown, and he was glad his students would have the opportunity to see a group of talented performers.
“Hearing music live is a thrilling experience for all. My students will be able to take what we have been learning about all year and process it through a new and different lens. A performance like this can motivate and inspire. I hope my students will ask to hear more and seek out live performances of all kinds,” Claussen wrote in an email. “I really am looking forward to the connections my students can make. I hope that they all play their instrument past high school and this is the kind of event that could motivate them to keep playing.”
Claussen knew “Sleigh Ride” would challenge his students technically. He is proud of how they have risen to the occasion, and he is looking forward to his students sharing the stage with the ISU Symphony.
Govias feels it’s important to be a “good neighbor” to communities in Central Iowa, something he feels the orchestra has not done a good job of in the past, in part due to COVID. With the pandemic winding down, however, Govias has strived to increase community outreach and partnerships.
In October, the ISU Symphony Orchestra did a performance at the Valley High School in Des Moines, and now they have been able to partner with MHS. He also hopes to visit Ottumwa again in the future, as they did a performance there last year.
“I think it’s very important to cultivate a sense of service in our musicians and the idea that they are there to serve communities,” Govias said. “So, the idea is just to be present and to support musical activity in all of these different places.”
They haven’t visited Marshalltown in the past, and Govias is looking forward to “making new friends” and putting on a good performance for the community.
The concert will be held at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center, which is located on the MHS campus at 1602 S. 2nd Ave.
Contact Susanna Meyer
at 641-753-6611 or