MUSCATINE, Iowa–Always a musical city, Muscatine has had an orchestra of some sort off and on since 1887. The Muscatine Symphony Orchestra that continues to perform to this day started in 2002 when a board formed to oversee the group of volunteer musicians Jan Phillips had organized and led since 2000 at Muscatine Community College. To celebrate 20 years of creating music in and for the Muscatine community, the Symphony put on their First You Dream fundraising gala Jan. 7.
Held in the Merrill Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, the Symphony greeted guests with hot hors d’hoeuvres and cocktails, as well as a specialty beer, Maestro’s Ale Altbier, created by Contrary Brewing Company just for the occasion. A string quartet with Heather Turner and Aleese Kenitzer playing violin, Kayla Priest playing viola, and Gail Pusateri playing cello graced the ballroom with a pleasing selection of instrumental arrangements of popular songs.
Before dinner, Muscatine Symphony Orchestra President Carmen Bugay welcomed the more than 200 guests who attended and thanked the Merrill Hotel for hosting and catering the event and serving dinner, Phelps for placing the Symphony’s logo on several new products, Contrary Brewery for creating the Maestro’s Ale, and West Hill Cakery for providing dessert. Then, attendees had the opportunity to enjoy a dinner buffet, as well as cupcakes topped with artisanal candies for dessert. Kenitzer and her student, Ella, delighted diners with several harp duets.
As the assembly finished their desserts and hot coffee, Maestro Brian Dollinger introduced the evening’s signature performance, a solo repertoire by Broadway performer Allison Blackwell. Previously, Dollinger conducted a concert for the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra in Hawaii (which he serves as artistic director and conductor) at which Blackwell performed, and the event received rave reviews. When he started thinking about music for the Symphony’s 20th anniversary gala, he knew right away he wanted to bring her to Muscatine. Looking out on the crowd, Dollinger felt pleased to see many new and well-known faces eager to listen to her perform.
Then Blackwell, making her debut performance in Iowa, sang a selection of songs, including her titular, “First You Dream,” that helped tell her story. Growing up the child of two music professors, Blackwell enjoyed listening to live performances and recordings and fell in love with “Porgy and Bess.” In 2012, she had the opportunity to perform in the show’s Broadway revival, which earned a Tony Award as well as a Grammy nomination. To commemorate her Broadway debut, she sang a selection from the show.
She followed it up with a variety of other songs that paid tribute to some of her favorite artists including Harald Arlen’s “Legalize My Name” composed for Pearl Bailey in St Louis Woman and “Stormy Weather,” “Anyone Can Whistle” by Steven Soundheim (who she met personally), “I’ve got a Crush on You” by George and Ira Gershwin as performed by Ella Fitzgerald, “Natural Woman” by Carol King as performed by Aretha Franklin (who she also met while playing her in “A Night with Janis Joplin”), and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” by Judy Garland.
The evening proved quite a night to remember for all who attended. “It was exceptional–we don’t get concerts like this in Muscatine often,” glowed Muscatine Symphony Orchestra Personel Manager Kathleen Schippers.