William Ford | 4 OCT 2022
The Omaha Symphony (OS) pares itself down to chamber orchestra size for a series of concerts that have the orchestra travel from the Holland Center for Performing Arts to the art-deco splendor of the Witherspoon Concert Hall at Omaha’s Joslyn Museum. With the Joslyn undergoing a major expansion and renovation, the OS will instead be playing these chamber concerts at the Strauss Performing Arts Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Built in the Brutalist style popular at the time, the Strauss was built in 1973, and it too recently was renovated and expanded. The Jan and John Christensen Concert Hall seats about 422. It is an attractive venue, given its age and style, with the stage dominated by a Casavant organ. The acoustics of the auditorium are warm and just reverberant enough to flatter a chamber-size orchestra.
The OS was conducted by music director Ankush Kumar Bahl, who gave a brief note to the audience before each piece. He is charming and has an easy sense of humor. He prepared the audience for the first piece, Entr’acte arranged for string orchestra by Caroline Shaw, by saying how much he liked it but that it was a bit “weird.”
Ms. Shaw is the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer prize in Music (she was 31 at the time) and has won numerous awards subsequently for her music.
Entr’acte was inspired by Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2. The themes of the piece harken back to the classical era, but each is slightly modified to introduce an edge. For example, a lyrical passage runs out of steam and “melts” away as if it didn’t have the strength to sustain itself. In others, dissonance is added; in others, the string instruments are plucked, snapped, and muted to introduce novelty to themes. There is a long sequence where the strings play pizzicato, but even then, the effect is slightly odd. The closing minutes are a solo cello playing quietly as if the piece was in its last gasp, which indeed it was. Entr’acte is definitely an intriguing piece that deserves a place in the modern repertory. The OS under Maestro Bahl was excellent.
The next work was Beethoven’s 1803 Triple Concerto. The soloists were the OS’s associate concertmaster violinist Ahra Cho, principal cello Paul Ledwon, and principal keyboardist Christi Zuniga (who received her Bachelor of Music from Georgia’s Clayton State University).
The work is in three movements marked “Allegro,” “Largo,” and “Rondo alla Polacca”; it is full of memorable passages, ranging from the bold to the refined, with extensive development sections. The concerto is considered one of the composer’s “lesser” works and is not programmed as frequently as some of his “greater” works, such as the symphonies, for example.
The three soloists played well but were not convincing in exploiting the drama of the piece. The themes that begin in the lowest registers and then soar up the scale were played with a certain reticence, truncating the drama. Phrases could have benefited from a bit more rubato to plumb their musical brawn. Intonation issues appeared, especially in the third movement. Maestro Bahl and the OS provided superb accompaniment that never overwhelmed the soloists.
The final work was Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, “Linz.” Maestro Bahl introduced the performance, saying that while Beethoven labored over every passage, Mozart seemed to download music from on high with an ease and skill that maybe has never been surpassed. While likely true, it’s that almost formulaic approach that I find off-putting about his music. For me, it is as if I can predict the work’s finale based on its first few introductory notes. His music is elegant and refined with few surprises and is the epitome of the classical era (save for his last few symphonies and the Requiem, which were harbingers of the coming romantic revolution). Mozart is said to have composed this symphony in four days, which is a spectacular feat, but that may only be an indication of the formula at work. This was a fine performance of this symphony, suitably elegant and refined.
Based on this very successful concert, there is no doubt that Maestro Bahl and the OS musicians have entered into a very successful performing partnership in Omaha. ■