William Ford | 15 MAR 2021
It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket to be back hearing live music in a great concert hall. In part to mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of Omaha’s Holland Performing Arts Center, the Omaha Symphony (OS) hosted a live and in-person, socially distanced chamber concert. The sweet acoustic of the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall is a quick reminder of why music best lives on stage rather than on screen. While the hall seats 2,005, there were about 250 masked ticket holders in attendance at this diverse program that showcased the skills of the OS’ principal players. Kudos to the Symphony for taking a small but important step in opening to the public and for programming such a wide range of music and musical styles.
The program started with Martinu’s Promenades for flute, violin, and harpsichord from 1939. The composer was not known for polishing his works post-composition, and his works are of inconsistent quality. It is neo-classical in style, which was popular during the time of his late career. The first movement is energetic, the middle a gentle flute aria and the third a humorous scherzando, with a high energy finale. OS principal flute Maria Harding was joined by OS Concertmaster Susan Perry Gilmore and harpsichordist Mark Kurtz for this performance. All three musicians were in top form and the harpsichord was nicely placed to for its supportive role.
Bach’s Trio Sonata for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord from The Musical Offering had Ms. Harding and Mr. Kurtz joined by violinist Keith Plenert (the OS principal second violin), and cellist Greg Clinton (the OS associate principal cello). Musicologist Charles Rosen proclaimed this Trio as the most significant piano composition in history, in part due to a six-voice fugue that is a main feature of it. This performance had a few intonation issues early on but evolved into a solid statement of this difficult work. By the way, the left-hand part of the harpsichord parallels the music played by the cello, hence making a trio a quartet of sorts!
Robert O’Brien (OS principal percussionist) and Derek Drier romped through a spirited performance of George Hamilton Greens’ Log Cabin Blues. The ragtime- styled work requires much of the musicians and O’Brien and Drier performed it with style and finesse. Green himself was a master xylophonist, hailed from Omaha, and provided the music for Disney’s first cartoons. He also invented the vibraphone, an instrument that appears in the next work.
Pulitzer-winning composer Charles Wuorinen’s Eleven Short Pieces for Violin and Vibraphone (2006) was next, featuring Gilmore and O’Brien. The work, some might say mercifully, has only 101 notes. Wuorinen in one of those composers arising out of the mid-20th century who composed not particularly for music lovers but for other academics and theoreticians. The Eleven Pieces may be intriguing, but they are not necessarily accessible, or enjoyable and likely Mr. Wuorinen would not care.
Next on the program was Andy Akiho’s Hammer for Violin and Toy Piano (2019). Mr. Akiho is an exciting contemporary composer who often reconceptualizes how instruments should be played, and what exactly a music instrument is. He is a skilled steel pan player and is rapidly gaining a large following of contemporary musicians (see my 2016 interview with Mr. Akiho here:
William Ford | atlantamusiccritic.com/YpuTube (duration: 53:33)
Hammer might best be described as a phrenetic conversation between the violin and toy piano, played remarkably well by Gilmore and O’Brien, neither of whom treated the music as a novelty. It was a great, yet brief introduction to Akiho’s oeuvre.
O’Brien arranged Paganini’s Cantabile for violin and guitar for the unlikely combination of violin and vibraphone. Did it work? Absolutely. The music soared with elegance and grace as performed by O’Brien and Ms. Perry. It was an awesome performance of an awesome arrangement.
The longest work on the program was Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major, performed by Harding, Gilmore, Clinton, and violist Thomas Kluge. This is elegant music that requires the flute to be front and center and Ms. Harding ably obliged. The addition of the lower register of the viola was instantly recognizable, adding depth and warmth to the sound.
The final work for this adventuresome evening was the Mark O’Connor penned Appalachia Waltz. Performed by Plenert, Kluge, and Clinton, it was a luxurious tour of Appalachian music in which can be heard the echoes of Irish and Scottish folk music. This was a wonderful performance, full of heart and warmth- it was a great way to end a concert that was a well-performed musical survey of the last 300 years of Western Art Music.
The talents of the Omaha Symphony’s musical leadership were impressive. Audiences in Omaha should be pleased that their Symphony is back performing in their outstanding concert hall. Thanks to all who made this evening possible. ■