Conductor Builds Community While Making Music
WHEELING — Building community while making music remains a hallmark of conductor Timothy Hankewich’s approach to the arts.
Hankewich, the current music director of Orchestra Iowa, is one of five candidates for music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
He is conducting the WSO’s season-opening pops concert at the Capitol Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday and the opening Masterworks concert at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19. “You get a double dose of me early on,” he quipped.
Hankewich, Andres Franco, Silas Huff and John Devlin were named as finalists for the post in April. Roger Kalia was added as a candidate later.
During Hankewich’s tenure, Orchestra Iowa has rebuilt itself from the ground up, literally, and has expanded its audiences and programs, adding opera, ballet, chamber music series and jazz series to its regular season presentations. Orchestra Iowa operates on a $3 million annual budget and has 60 to 70 contracted musicians, he said.
The resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is impressed with what he learned from reviewing the Wheeling Symphony’s current and past seasons. “You can tell a lot about an orchestra by the work it performs. It reveals a lot about the standard of orchestra you enjoy,” he remarked.
He has studied the diversity of the WSO programming and its educational offerings. As a leader, he applauds programming with cross-over appeal and he advocates for tapping into contemporary culture.
“No man, or no orchestra, is an island,” he said. Industry-wide, the best ensembles “are able to cater to a much broader audience,” he added.
Today, an orchestra “has to battle for its relevancy in its own community, its standing in the community,” Hankewich commented. “It has to be so much more than just a musical entity. It needs to be contributing to the education of the area, the social welfare of the area — what sort of quality of life does it offer, what type of economic impact does it incur for the community.”
He added, “At the end of the day, a symphony orchestra is also a business. It must be fiscally responsible and accountable in a way that is sustainable.”
Reflecting on his time with Orchestra Iowa, he said, “I’ve been here for 13 years and it has been a remarkable ride.”
In 2008, large portions of Cedar Rapids — including the orchestra’s building — were devastated by a hurricane-related flood. “A 6-mile swath of water destroyed the downtown business core as well as several neighborhoods,” he said.
As a result of the flood, Hankewich said, “At the symphony, we lost everything. We lost a theater, we lost all our equipment, all our patron and ticketing data, and we didn’t even have an office to regroup in. We had to rebuild an orchestra from scratch at a time when the community was severely hurting.
“You really know what an organization is made of and its relationship with the community when times are that difficult,” he related. “Ten years later. not only did we survive it, we thrived through it. We rebuilt everything, including our building, increasing its quality and rebuilding its business model.”
Hankewich commented, “I’m extremely proud of the community for banding together and not leaving anything behind. I’m most proud of my time here in Iowa.”
For Orchestra Iowa, “at our darkest we had only about four months of operating capital left. It was not good,” he said. “Everybody was concentrated on rebuilding their businesses and their personal lives, understandably so.”
Ten years ago, the orchestra’s first post-flood concert was staged at a local historical site. He said, “We performed outside. It turned into an incredibly powerful new tradition. Performing outdoors is nothing new, but it’s a very powerful tool in bringing people together and breaking down barriers of people who are not sure if they’re going to like symphonic music.”
As for his background, Hankewich was born and reared in Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia. “The economy there was primarily agriculture, forestry, mining and oil. Being so isolated you would think there would not be much opportunity for arts to thrive, but in fact, the reality was quite the opposite,” he said.
At age 8, Hankewich’s first piano teacher was a woman from Germany. “She became a galvanizing force in that small town. She produced every year, of all things, an opera. I learned then the power that the arts can have in community building. The whole town would shut down to prepare for its performance and attend its performance,” he recalled.
His next mentor organized a choir. Hankewich said, “He ended up being a model of what a professional musician can be. He was also a ‘pied piper’ in getting the community involved. He was organizing musicals, was a great organist at church and introduced me to great choral works.”
Later, Hankewich was invited to study piano at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which was a four- or five-hour drive from his home. “At the age of 14, I would fly once a month out of the bush into the city, have an extended piano lesson and theory lesson, and return the same night,” he said. “By that time, it was pretty clear I was going to pursue some career in music.”
He earned an honors degree in piano performance at the University of Alberta and a master’s degree as a choral conductor at the same institution. Shortly after marrying, he and his wife, who is a pharmacist, came to the United States. He studied instrumental and operatic conducting at Indiana University at Bloomington.
“Our intention was to go back home (to Canada) after my studies, but fate and life had other ideas in store for me,” he said. “Toward the end of my degree, I was appointed as conducting fellow at the Indianapolis Symphony. Shortly afterwards, I joined the conducting staff at the Oregon Symphony. Things started changing rapidly.”
After two years of apprenticing in Oregon, he won an assistant conducting position with the Evansville Philharmonic and the resident conductor’s position with the Kansas City Symphony.
“My wife and I stayed there for seven years before ultimately coming to Iowa,” he said. “Around four years ago, I became a U.S. citizen.”
The conductor said, “I’m a recovering pianist. I still stay in touch with the instrument, but there are only so many hours in the day. One of the most difficult decisions musicians have to make when they decide to dip their toe in the conducting world, is they have to make a decision whether to be a player or a conductor. There are a few who can do both.”
Happy with his choice of careers, Hankewich said, “I think conductors have the best job in the world because it’s so varied. You have to be a scholar; you have to be a musician; you have to be a politican, a parent, a psychologist. Your daily activities vary so much from office meetings to rehearsals to performances. It keeps you fresh. It’s a real joy and a privilege.
“There are a lot more conductors than there are orchestras. There are a lot more musicians than there are orchestras to hire them,” he observed. “It’s something special and something that I don’t take for granted, and I remind myself every day.”