A native of Iowa City, he performed at the Orchestra Iowa’s “Homecoming” concerts

Forget drifting off to dreamland with Brahms’ Lullaby. His No. 1 Piano Concerto in D minor will keep you wide awake as Iowa City native Conor Hanick joins the Orchestra Iowa for two “Homecoming” concerts on Saturday night in Cedar Rapids and on Sunday afternoon, November 19th and 20th, in Coralville, 2022.

“If you’re a pianist, there are a handful of concertos on top of the mountain, and the Brahms concertos – both – are some of the most profound and satisfying piano concertos one can perform. They have a very symphonic scope,” said Orchestra Iowa maestro Timothy Hankewich.

“It’s like a big roast beef dinner.”

And with that, the cast will most likely be ready for a nap — or at least a break — after running a 50-plus minute marathon.

Hanick said he’ll be exhausted by the end of the play.

“You’re not doing it right unless you’re completely obliterated,” Hanick said over the phone from the home he shares with his wife and their 3-year-old son in Hastings-on-Hudson, north of New York City. “It is one of the masterpieces of endurance and technical challenge. It asks you to do everything. … They leave everything on the field.”

when you go

What: Orchestra Iowa Masterworks II “Homecoming”

Cedar Rapids: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 19, Paramount Theater, 123 Third Ave. SE; $17 to $58, ticket.artsiowa.com/4297-homecoming

Coralville: 2 p.m. Sunday, November 20, Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.; $18 to $47, ticket.artsiowa.com/4297-homecoming/4322

Student tickets: Prices and details at artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/homecoming/

Program: Brahms’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 with pianist Conor Hanick; Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”

Though Hanick is interested in new music collaborations, which have helped him build a community of fellow musicians doing “exciting” work, the Juilliard graduate said there’s also a certain freshness to revisiting a masterpiece.

“It’s a bottomless pit of challenge, thought and interpretation,” he said. “These are great masterpieces because nobody owns them. They are ours. And it means anyone can look at her and say something about her that’s different from everyone else. And that’s extremely exciting.

“It took me a long time to somehow understand the quoting, unquoting of ‘older’ music or ‘canonized’ music. And honestly, it was working with composers and creating new pieces that reminded me that all those pieces were brand new once. … For the sake of the pieces and because they are so limitless, you have to approach them as if they had just been written. You must look at them as if you are the first person to see these notes.

“It’s extremely exciting and opens up permission to do things that aren’t so tied to the baggage that we bring to these masterpieces,” he said. “We’ve heard them so many hundreds of times, there are so many iconic interpretations of these pieces.

“Every pianist plays Brahms’ Concerto in D minor. It’s no reason not to do it, it’s a reason to revisit it and make decisions about the piece that have to do with the score on its own terms, and not with what 150 years of interpretation has said about it to have.”

He sees similarities between the revival of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which he performed on his debut with the Orchestra Iowa in January 2010, and that of Brahms as we recover from the pandemic.

Of the 2010 performances, he said, “I just remember having this feeling of gratitude that the concerts were happening and that the season wasn’t derailed by that catastrophic flood” that damaged the Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids in 2008.

And now that he’s “on the edge of the pandemic, so to speak,” he said it was a similar feeling, with “gratitude that we can be together again and experience these incredible works of art together.”

Then and now

While studying Prokofiev and later Brahms in his youth, he jumped at the chance to awaken these pieces within himself.

“I was a bit of a kid when I performed (Prokofiev), but I remember revisiting that play and kind of confronting a younger version of me and having to relearn certain things and other things was pleasantly surprised. ” he said.

“And the Brahms is actually the same situation for me. I learned this piece around the time I was playing with the Orchestra Iowa in 2010 – maybe a little earlier. I’ve played it a few times in between, but watching it again now, it’s like you just update your software version of yourself and hit the restart button.

“I guess Tim (Hankewich) has a way of taking pieces that compels me to confront these older beta versions of myself,” he said, laughing.

He described Brahms as “very youthful Brahms through and through”.

“It’s not the Brahms you think of when you see older pictures of him where he’s sort of old and weathered and bearded. He was in his twenties when he completed this piece. He was obviously trying to make a powerful, bold statement, and it’s tremendously effective at that,” Hanick said.

“This piece was designed as a symphony, and then it turned into a piano concerto. That was kind of a trend he often had in his writing. … Even though it’s in piano concerto form, it still feels symphonic. The orchestra plays a big part and you never really get the feeling that the piano is being reinforced by this much greater kind of titanic force going on behind it.

“I think the other thing about it is that, as opposed to that sense of elemental power, the piece basically has that deep sense of lyricism and a quality of vocalization that the first movement opens with. This sense of lyricism and expressiveness never deviates from the expressive range of the piece. Even when it’s at its most turbulent and thunderous, it’s still kind of fundamentally lyrical, at least to me,” Hanick said.

“It’s also a deeply personal piece. There are many small autobiographical storylines, which occupy the first and second movements in particular with Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and (Brahms’) relationship with Clara Schumann and the resulting complex web of emotions.”

The orchestra will also shine in the concert spotlight.

“There are two approaches to writing concertos,” Hankewich said. “You have an outstanding soloist with the orchestra in the background. And the other approach that Brahms masters is to present orchestra and soloist on an equal footing. The orchestra, like the pianist, has fleshy substance to deliver, and the two are in constant partnership and dialogue with one another. …

“It starts with an extremely dramatic and dark opening. There are melodies in there that will just break your heart. And when we get to the last movement there is a flash of Hungarian bravery that will make you smile.”

Hankewich has followed Hanick’s career, and during the pandemic, the pianist has been a guest on Hankewich’s weekly virtual talk “Happy Hour.”

“Offline then and there I was like, ‘Hey — we need you for our 100th anniversary (season). It’s too special not to have you.’ … I made it very clear to him that of all the guest artists, I started with him. It was very important to feature him as a soloist this season,” Hankewich said.

“Our theme is ‘100 years into our future’. When we first introduced him, he was a climber. Now it has arrived – and much more. He is the future.”

Dvorak

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” will also be heard at the upcoming concerts.

While some say the work was written in Spillville in the summer of 1893 and others say it was written in New York City, where the Czech composer served as director of the National Conservatory of Music from 1892 to 1895, Hankewich said that both schools of thought they are accurate.

“Symphonies are not created overnight. You have a gestation period,” he said, “and a considerable amount of training time. And certainly this symphony was composed between his time in New York and Iowa. So he was definitely working simultaneously on the manuscripts of the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto and the “American” String Quartet.

“Well, call it New York, sure, where he finished the score, but the fact is when he came west he was inspired by (Native American) folk songs as well as (African American) spirituals. In fact, at this point in his life he was tasked with finding an American national sound.

“An African-American composer named Harry T. Burleigh suggested that Dvorak seek Indigenous American material for his melodies. Dvorak was already doing this in the old country, with Czech folksong, and he happily applied the same techniques, except in the American context.

“And from that, an American sound was born.”

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Concert pianist and native of Iowa City, Conor Hanick returns home for two Orchestra Iowa Homecoming concerts on November 19th and 20th. He will play Brahms Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, which he describes as “a piece full of contrasts,” from “thundering” to “intimate”, “massively symphonic” to “incredibly lyrical and personal”. (Conor Hanick)

Concert pianist and native of Iowa City, Conor Hanick returns home for two Orchestra Iowa Homecoming concerts on November 19th and 20th. He will play Brahms Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, which he describes as “a piece full of contrasts,” from “thundering” to “intimate”, “massively symphonic” to “incredibly lyrical and personal”. (Conor Hanick)

Concert pianist and native of Iowa City, Conor Hanick returns home for two Orchestra Iowa Homecoming concerts on November 19th and 20th. He will play Brahms Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, which he describes as “a piece full of contrasts,” from “thundering” to “intimate”, “massively symphonic” to “incredibly lyrical and personal”. (Conor Hanick)

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