'Belleville is looking spectacular': Cellist returns to honor city's 200th birthday

News-DemocratMay 4, 2014 

— On Sunday afternoon, when cellist Ida Edwards Mercer took the stage at the Lindenwood University-Belleville Auditorium, her musical career had gone full circle.

Mercer, a product of Belleville's public schools, had last played with a school orchestra on this stage in 1973. That was the year she had graduated from its original owner, Belleville West High School.

Forty-one years later she was back in Belleville for the first time with her ensemble, the acclaimed Almeda Trio, which performed challenging works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Dave Brubeck to the delight of an audience of nearly 200 people.

"It's great," Mercer said after the concert. "It's such a beautiful weekend. Belleville is looking spectacular."

Lindenwood University had acquired the old Belleville West campus years ago, but "It still feels like West High School to me," she said. "I know it's not."

Mercer and Almeda's other two members -- pianist Robert Cassidy and violinist Cara Tweed -- had journeyed from their home base of Cleveland to play as guests of the Philharmonic Society of Belleville as part of its nearly two-hour-long Belleville Bicentennial Tribute Concert.

For 37 minutes, the Almeda Trio teamed up with the Belleville Philharmonic to perform Beethoven's "Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major."

Composed in 1803 -- 11 years before Belleville's official launch as a city -- the concerto is notable for the fact that for the first time it featured three specific instruments that had never appeared as soloists before.

"It really stands alone," said Mercer, who teaches cello at The Music Settlement and the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"No one else has written a piece for piano trio and orchestra," Mercer said of Beethoven, who "did such a great job of the balance so that the piano never overwhelms the strings, and then the orchestra is behind it. The whole thing is a masterpiece."

Mercer, whose German ancestors moved to St. Clair County in 1832, and her colleagues finished off their appearance with Brubeck's Concordia, an arrangement of which the late jazz master wrote specifically for the trio.

What made the performance of Brubeck piece memorable was the fact it required Mercer at times to pluck the cello's strings with her right hand while pounding its top with her left hand like a drum.

"Mr. Brubeck, he was experimenting around with more percussive aspects of that instrument," she said. "At some point I was tapping on the top of the box. Beethoven never did anything like that."

The Almeda Trio joined the Belleville Philharmonic during the program's second half.

The program's first half consisted of the orchestra playing two of classical music's most beloved and instantly recognizable works: Giochino Rossini's "Overture" to The Barber of Seville and selections from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt -- music that has been featured in countless movies, TV shows, commercials and cartoons for decades.

The Belleville Philharmonic finished the first half of the program with a robust, rousing version of the Belleville Home Coming March, which the late machinist and trumpet teacher Frank E. Macke wrote for the city's centennial in 1914.

Robert Howard, the orchestra's music director and conductor, said his decision to re-orchestrate the march and play it Sunday was a natural.

"Bicentennial, a piece written for the centennial," Howard said. "To follow up by bringing it up to date."

The Belleville Philharmonic dates back to the days following the Civil War, when German immigrants who had served in the Union Army returned to Belleville wanting to hear "music like they had at home," Howard said.

The Belleville orchestra performed its first concert in January 1867.

"And so its been connected to the community all the time, uninterrupted, ever since," he said.

Concert-goer Allen Suemnicht, of Belleville, called the orchestra's performance of the march "excellent" and lauded the work for its "interesting melodies...I liked the way he orchestrated it, in other words, assigned the parts to the various instruments in the orchestra."

Suemincht praised the Belleville Orchestra, a volunteer group, for its high quality and for its willingness to play classical music.

"For a town Belleville's size, the orchestra is commendable," he said.

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