It has, indeed, been a long journey home for Red Cedar Chamber Music.
The ensemble born on the banks of the Red Cedar River 16 years ago has branched out regionally, nationally and internationally, but is opening its 2012-13 season back where the journey began.
The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library has reopened a few feet back and a few feet higher than its original riverbank perch in Cedar Rapids, where those early audiences could see the river ripple behind the Boland-Dowdall Duo’s guitar/flute performances in the majestic Grand Hall.
In November of 1996, the duo added a viola to bring a concert of Czech chamber music to the gleaming, barely-year-old museum.
“Based on the success of that concert, we decided that this is the direction we wanted to go,” says guitarist and artistic director John Dowdall, 63, of Marion. “Rather than continuing to focus on just flute and guitar, we really wanted to change the focus to flute, guitar and other instruments, because we loved that whole literature and working with other musicians.”
From reading 19th century diaries as part of their early-music research, Dowdall and his wife, flutist Jan Boland, learned the Cedar River was commonly called the Red Cedar River in those days. So in 1997, the couple rolled out the name Red Cedar Chamber Music and embarked on their new path, which kept leading back to the museum for subsequent concerts, until the Floods of 2008 surged through the stately facility.
Not Czech by birth, Boland and Dowdall have embraced the region’s ethnic heritage, commissioning many works over the years that feature Czech flavors. Four of those pieces, all written in the past decade by Red Cedar’s past and present composers-in-residence, will be showcased in Red Cedar’s gala return to the renovated museum Oct. 7. Iowa City cellist Carey Bostian will turn the duo into a trio for a series of concerts launching Red Cedar’s new season.
“It really is a homecoming for us, as well as getting back to our roots as Red Cedar,” Dowdall says.
The concert’s centerpiece is the world premiere of “Long Journey Home,” by current composer-in-residence Michael Gilbertson, 25, a Dubuque native and Juilliard graduate now working on his master’s degree at Yale University.
“It perfectly captures the sentiment of the museum coming home,” Dowdall says. “(It’s) very different in character than the ‘Circle the Wagons’ that we got (from him) last year. That had a lot of overt energy — that one seemed to be a little more in line with the piece we got from him when he was 16.”
This one shows more of his choral writing influence, Dowdall says of the young composer, whose work has been performed by Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Grand Rapids symphonies as well as the Juilliard Orchestra and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Gilbertson’s commissions range from choral to instrumental, including a guitar concerto for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra and a ballet for the New York Choreographic Institute.
“(Red Cedar) asked me to write something for the reopening of the museum. That made me think of Dvorak -- they’ve had this long relationship with the history of Dvorak being in Iowa, and the history of the Czech Village and up in Spillville and the Czech community in Cedar Rapids,” Gilbertson says by phone from New Haven, Conn.
“For me there was sort of a dual inspiration,” he says. “On one hand, I was thinking about Dvorak being in Iowa and it seems he really didn’t like it all that much -- what it must have seemed like to him to have to go from Iowa all the way back to Czechoslovakia, and what a long journey that would have been, and just how profound the distance would have been that he had felt.
“I was thinking about that sense of distance and what it must have felt like for him, as he was dreaming of going home,” Gilbertson says. “For me personally, whenever I go back to Iowa, this is a two-day drive and I have a lot of time to think and reflect and time by myself. When you’re in that kind of zone where you’re just driving by yourself on the road, it puts you in a different state of mind, a kind of meditative state. Time doesn’t pass in the same way that we normally experience it when we’re working or when we’re talking on the phone or walking somewhere.
“Those are the two things I was thinking about -- what your experience is like when you’re in transit from one place to another in the world or in your life, especially when you’re thinking about going back to your roots or going back to where you came from.”
He says the piece, which runs between 7 and 8 minutes, has a little bit of a bluegrass influence in the guitar writing, “which kind of connects it to the rural inspiration for the piece.”
He hopes listeners get the impression of “losing a sense of time on a long trip -- that feeling of coming back to your roots.”
Unfortunately, with all his time constraints, he won’t get to come home to hear the work in concert, but he is enjoying the whole collaborative process of hearing and commenting on the rehearsal tapes Red Cedar is sending him.
“What I really like about John and Jan, besides being great people, is that they are like me in the sense that they love collaboration, love working with composers and having different musicians perform with them,” he says.
It only took him two or three weeks to write the piece, but he says composing can feel like a lonely process, spending so much time by yourself in a studio, so the tapes and conversations make him feel that “other people are actually working with me on the project,” he says, which he doesn’t always get working with a big ensemble or orchestra.
He and Dowdall agree that the museum’s Great Hall provides the kind of space needed to enjoy the nuances of an acoustic ensemble.
“It’s a very nice space -- very resonant,” Gilbertson says. “It’s a good space for them. It’s very intimate, so you’ll feel very, very close to the music.”
The works of previous composers-in-residence include selections from “Trio Concertant Over Czech Folks Songs by Jerry Owen of Cedar Rapids; “Spillville” by Harvey Sollberger of Strawberry Point; and a group commission of “Variations on a Theme by Dvorak,” with contributions from Gilbertson, Sollberger and Andrew Earle Simpson of Washington, D.C.
Among the Dvorak variations is a movement by Joshua Reznicow, orchestra director at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, which brings a big fanfare to the overall work. And the opening piece, Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” was arranged by Boland, adding to the local flavor of the concert.
Audiences will hear a cornucopia of sounds in the museum and in various rural outreach concerts this fall.
“It’s a really good mix of lively and maybe mournful and a variety of different moods,” Dowdall says. “It will start out with ‘Humoresque,’ which is very light and lively. It’s a piece many people know and very few people know that Dvorak actually wrote it. That’s a little piece of ear candy to start the concert off.”
Sollberger’s “Spillville,” featured on Red Cedar’s new CD due out in October, rounds out the first half of the concert. The 23-minute work was inspired by Dvorak’s American string quartet, written during the Czech composer’s stay in Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893 -- with Czech folk songs tucked in between.
“The way Harvey conceived it, with the four movements and putting in those three Czech folk songs, is really very Czech. It taps into some real Czech music that Dvorak wrote, which is classical music, but then it taps into the Czech folk,” Dowdall says. “I just think it’s a pretty brilliant composition all the way around.”
Dowdall is especially pleased to share Sollberger’s “Spillville” and “Perhaps Gilead,” his 2011 commission, on the CD -- which helps Red Cedar share them with the world. Unlike the pop music realm, where CDs mean monetary gain, Dowdall says that in the niche classical industry, “it means you are creating art, then disseminating art beyond the local community.”
In this digital age of YouTube and downloads, online music sites let the world know what Eastern Iowa audiences have discovered through years of Red Cedar’s rural outreach and home concerts.
“It brings Iowa culture to the forefront nationally,” Dowdall says. “People across the planet can hear this music, and it’s not isolated to this region.”
What: "Long Journey Home"
When: 6 p.m. Oct. 7, 2012
Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
Tickets: $15 in advance or $18 at the door; $10 ages 30 and under; through the museum, (319) 362-850
Marion: 1:30 p.m. Oct. 4, Village Place, 345 Marion Blvd.; free
Solon: 7 p.m. Oct. 4, Saints Peter and Paul Community Center, 1165 Taft Ave.; free
Fairfax: 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Fairfax Public Library; free
Fayette: 7 p.m. Oct. 6, Fayette Opera House; free
Remainder of Red Cedar's 2012-13 concert season:
"Seven Score and Ten …," 8 p.m. Feb. 23, Brucemore
Honors the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with 19th century American music, performed on antique instruments. Includes intermission champagne reception. Tickets: $35, limited seating, (319) 362-7375.
"au naturel," 8 p.m. April 27, First Presbyterian Church
Mixes the mellow brass sound of natural horn by Douglas Lundeen of New Jersey with Red Cedar's 19th-century wooden flute and guitar. Tickets: $15 advance, $18 at the door, $10 ages 30 and under, (319) 377-8028.More information: Redcedar.org