William Ford | 27 SEP 2022
Omaha’s downtown has been through a remarkable transformation that started about a decade ago. The Holland Center for Performing Arts (HCPA), owned by Omaha Performing Arts and home to the Omaha Symphony (OS), was part of the revival. Now the HCPA fronts onto a transformed central park mall that was part of a $325 million overhaul of three adjacent city parks. Included in the central mall is an amphitheater purpose-built for outdoor performances. Near the HCPA, Steelhouse Omaha is nearly finished; it will be a live-performance venue with 1,500 to 3,000 seats. Finally, Mutual of Omaha will soon begin construction of a 650-foot tower near the HCPA.
In keeping with the atmosphere of change, Ankush Kumar Bahl was named music director of the Omaha Symphony, following in the footsteps of long-time director Thomas Wilkens.
But not everything is new: KVNO, the local full-time classical music station (yes, several do exist) is 50 years old and is joining forces with the OS this year to celebrate.
As part of the anniversary celebration, Maestro Bahl and KVNO jointly commissioned an overture to mark the occasion. They chose a local composer: 14-year-old Winston Schneider. The talented young man was introduced by KVNO’s general manager, who, with a tear in his eye, reminded the audience that Mr. Schneider was a Classical Kids winner, a KVNO program to spotlight emerging talent in classical music.
Mr. Schneider introduced the work titled Anniversary Overture. Its main theme is based on the call letters of the station translated into music. The introductory theme based on KVNO begins a fanfare-like section that leads into a complex development section and then to an energetic finale. It was tonal music that is reminiscent of neo-Romantics, such as composer John Williams. The near-capacity crowd enthusiastically received the piece.
Next was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, one of his last works and written in 1919. It reflects his despair in the aftermath of World War, his own infirmities, as well as those of his wife. It is a somber piece from a composer who tended toward the somber in even the best of times. It is also a long piece, in typical Elgarian style.
The soloist was Gabriel Martins, a 26-year cellist based in South Carolina. Once Martins starts playing, something transforms him. He becomes his instrument and the music. He seems to disengage from us mere mortals to enter a rapturous world of his own. He swoons, he exhales, he grimaces, he sways; he is so at one with the music that he is as thrilling to watch as he is to listen to. He left no emotional stone unturned in his performance.
One especially potent moment was when the solo cello and the entire cello section play in unison. Martins locked eyes with his colleagues as if to implore them to give their all. For his part, Maestro Bahl and the OS provided sympathetic support throughout. Mr. Martins was called back twice — he deserved much more. I suspect that the Elgar is just too introspective and sad to garner wild applause, even in the face of an outstanding artist.
Debussy’s La Mer followed the intermission, which is a well-known piece and requires an orchestra to move from Viennese richness and thick sound to a more transparent and delicate French sound. Bahl and the OS managed that quite effectively. At times the violins sound a bit ragged and without sheen and gossamer glitter. But it was a fine performance overall. As a bonus, local artist Christina Narwicz painted a large cavass during the performance. She was in the balcony, and her efforts were projected on a screen above the orchestra. I liked it, and the audience seemed intrigued. But I became so lost in the wonders of Debussy that I turned inward, with eyes closed.
The final work was Ravel’s famous/notorious Bolero. It is a roughly 17-minute crescendo that repeats a bolero theme over an incessant snare drumbeat. I know many who condescend to the music, which can lead to indifferent or sloppy performances. Many conductors have tried it and failed. They lose control of the dynamics, and the power of the gradually growing volume is lost. Most of the solo instrumentalists in the OS performed without a hitch. The trombonist did not fall prey to the exaggerated slide found in some performances, even with a few intonation problems. One of the solo woodwinds was a bit ahead of the beat. In the end, it was a powerful performance by the OS and Maestro Bahl.
The Omaha Symphony provides online program notes, so the audience is used to cell phones during a concert. Fortunately, the program notes automatically dim the phone, so it is not disruptive to others. Also, the OS uses video to its advantage. The Bolero was augmented with a live feed of musicians in play. The camera seemed to find the right section to focus on, and I found it rather enhancing to watch.
Each time I hear a concert at the HCPA. I am awe-struck by the acoustics. Not only are the left and right of the OS clearly heard, but there is also uncanny depth to the sound that highlights individual instrumental placement. The Kiewit Hall also has wonderful reverberation that enriches the sound. So many halls have a flat sound, and the orchestra seems to have only a few inches in depth. The OS is fortunate to have such a fine space, as are the patrons who enjoy great music and powerful orchestral sound. ■
- Omaha Symphony: omahasymphony.org
- Ankush Kumar Bahl: ankushbahl.com
- Gabriel Martins: gabrielmartinscello.com
- Winston Schneider: winstonfschneider.com
- Christina Narwicz: christinanarwicz.com