After the Great Flood: Iowa Makes Music

Last June, From the Top Tour Producer David Balsom was preparing to visit Cedar Rapids, Iowa to plan out a yearlong residency program with Orchestra Iowa when he received a frantic email from the symphony’s executive director. “The email said flood waters are coming, we’re evacuating, don’t come.”

“I thought it was most likely the end of the project,” said Balsom, referring to the Iowa Makes Music program piloted by From the Top this year. Over the course of the past nine-month this residency has integrated broadcast tapings of the NPR show with educational outreach programs, curriculum development and peer leadership trainings for teens to generate increased enthusiasm and participation in classical music throughout the state of Iowa.

Yet in June 2008 the likelihood that this ambitious program would get off the ground was grim.

Saturday June 13 Paramount TheatreIn the midst of the residency planning, Cedar Rapids suffered a devastating flood. In downtown Cedar Rapids, 100 blocks were underwater and 24,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. The flood not only destroyed Orchestra Iowa’s concert venue, the Paramount Theatre, it also wiped out their offices. The floodwaters topped nine feet, resting just under the marquee at the theater, leaving $25 million in damage. The symphony lost their computers, hard drives and archives, they lost their Steinway concert grand, their organ and other valuable instruments. Despite this obstacle, Orchestra Iowa continued their plans for the residency.

Just weeks after the flood, Orchestra Iowa’s Music Director Tim Hankewich wrote in his blog: “While the waters have washed away our home in the Paramount and our offices next door, in its wake, the river has also given us the gift of opportunity and re-birth.”

The symphony rescheduled their concert season at various venues in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Cedar Falls, broadening their reach to new communities in the process. They also announced that Orchestra Iowa would be partnering with From the Top for a statewide residency.

“After the flood, it was clear that the people of Cedar Rapids needed something positive to cling to. It was an opportunity for us to fulfill our mission by reaching out to our community and inviting more people to participate in our programs,” said Orchestra Iowa Executive Director Robert Massey. “Partnering with From the Top was an important part of our recovery. From the Top showcases what our community has to celebrate, and that’s a great thing. We can look back a year later and say this has been an incredible season.”

“From the Top became that much more important to us. It’s all about reaching out to new audiences, bringing up young talent and celebrating the next generation of great musicians, to create interest and enthusiasm for classical music. That’s why I’m so glad you came,” said Tim Hankewich.

From the Top visits Johnson Elementary in Cedar Rapids

From the Top visits Johnson Elementary in Cedar Rapids

This year, the Iowa Makes Music partners – From the Top, Orchestra Iowa and Iowa Public Radio -have taped radio broadcasts in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, presented more than a dozen school visits led by Iowa teens, developed new curriculum with Iowa teachers, and trained high school musicians as peer leaders to create their own community outreach programs. These NPR broadcasts have been shared with millions of listeners in Iowa and across the country, and this is only the beginning. Iowa Makes Music will continue through the fall of 2010.

In the meantime, the Paramount Theatre continues to be restored, and Orchestra Iowa has just returned to its recuperated downtown office after a year in satellite offices.

The Iowa project has been an important pilot for From the Top, who will take this model to Hawaii next January. The residency has also given From the Top the opportunity to build on its existing arts leadership program that encourages young musicians to give back to their communities and fulfill their potential as leaders and artist citizens.


From the Top Tour Producer David Balsom caught up with Orchestra Iowa’s Tim Hankewich and Robert Massey at the Paramount Theatre recovery site one year after the flood to talk about the residency program that nearly did not happen. Watch now.

Listen to our Iowa broadcasts from Des Moines and from Cedar Rapids the week of June 15 on participating NPR stations.

Visit the Iowa Makes Music web site.