William Ford | 10 JUL 2019
OMAHA, NE— On a beautiful warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in July, over 300 people turn out to hear an Omaha Chamber Music Society (OCMS) concert. With the frequent dire predictions in the popular media about the death of classical music and its audiences, this large turnout should be sending a different message. The genre is alive and well, and its audience remains robust. And it seems the OCMS is on to something.
The concert featured the piano duo of Jennifer Novak Haar and Christi Zuniga, known as “Christi and Jennifer.” Ms. Haar, an Oberlin graduate, performs frequently with orchestras and as a soloist throughout the plains states. Ms. Zuniga is a Curtis graduate and is the principal keyboardist of the Omaha Symphony. She is from Atlanta and attended Clayton State University, in Morrow, Georgia, where she obtained a degree in piano performance.
Five works comprised the program and provided a chronological sampling of dual piano music from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century. Chabrier’s rollicking España is likely most familiar to concert audience through its orchestral version. It is the French composer’s homage to and remembrances of a trip he took to Spain in 1882. Chabrier started to compose rather late in life; his music is full of energy, readily evoking the folk dances and melodies of his neighbor to the south. He has an entire passage that mimics the sound of a Spanish guitar. Christi and Jennifer gave a high energy and enthusiastic performance.
The next piece was Schubert’s transcendental Fantasie in F Minor, written in 1828, the year of his death. It was written for piano-four hands and has four sections- an opening allegro, a slow second movement, a scherzo, and a fugal finale. The introductory melody, which appears again in the final movement, is full of yearning and a bit of regret, maybe summarizing the composer’s state as he considered his imminent death. The turbulent inner movements showcased the power of the soloists, as they built up momentum to the finale. Ms. Haar and Ms. Zuniga had a bit of uncertainty when playing the final few chords, which led to a less-than-powerful end to this wonderful work.
Chopin’s Rondo in C Major was his only work for two pianos, and it was not published until after his death. It was composed when he was 18 years old. The first piano does most of the heavy lifting, with the second playing a more supportive role. In this, as in the two earlier works, Ms. Haar and Ms. Zuniga played with technical skill, lacking a certain musical finesse that makes for great performances; for example, sometimes they lacked a few of the subtleties found in superior presentations such as a bit more inflection of phrasing, more rubato or enhanced dynamic control.
Yet, this analytic and angular style served the final two works on the program quite well. The Suite in F-sharp Minor of Shostakovich was written when the composer was 16-years old and mourning the death of his father. The loss of his father would be difficult for the family as their income declined precipitously. The third movement, “Nocturne,” is beautifully lyrical and gives a hint at what direction the composer’s music might have taken had he not chosen to react to the influence of Stalin for so much of his career. The “Finale” is infused with Slavic fire and intensity, which worked well with the muscularity of Christi and Jennifer.
The final work was Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941). While much less famous than Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, it is equally compelling in demonstrating the possibilities of invention found in Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. These variations are hard-edged and dissonant, but no less enjoyable than those of the Russian master. Ms. Haar and Ms. Zuniga performed admirably.
As an encore, Christi and Jennifer performed a thoroughly enjoyable Bumble Boogie by Jack Fina. It’s a jazz-infused riff on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.
This concert was performed in the 200 fixed-seat auditorium of the Omaha Conservatory of Music. Through the use of a bank of telescoping seats, the capacity can be expanded to 500 seats. The entire Conservatory is located in a repurposed synagogue that was originally built in the 1950s. The auditorium is a fine setting for chamber music; it has a warm and gentle acoustic and the sightlines are wonderful. Finally, the OCMS programs have wonderful original cover artwork by Christina Narwicz. ■