William Foird | 6 FEB 2024
The Grammy-nominated Omaha Symphony, pared to chamber orchestra size, treks across town several Sundays a year to play at the Joslyn Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. But since that facility is undergoing a remodel and expansion, the orchestra has been performing at the University of Nebraska, Omaha’s Strauss Performing Arts Center. Its smallish auditorium seats 422.
Sameer Patel was guest conductor this weekend in a program that included two well-known works by Mendelssohn and Stravinsky. Sandwiched between these masterworks were contemporary compositions by Christopher Rouse and Osvaldo Golijov.
Patel is the newly named Music Director of the La Jolla (CA) Symphony and Chorus; he has also held associate conductor positions with various orchestras and has received an impressive list of conducting awards. He addressed the audience before each of the contemporary works, and he seemed knowledgeable and was thoroughly engaging.
The program began with Mendelssohn’s popular and familiar The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26. The music is a recounting of the composer’s trip to the Hebrides Islands off the Scottish coast and his visit to Fingal’s Cave, famous in Celtic myths and legends. The music mimics the rocking of the sailing vessel at times and includes themes expressing the awe and excitement of the composer’s experience.
It did not take long to hear that the hall’s acoustics were dry and clinical. There was little blending of the orchestral sound; sections stood out, and every instrument seemed to be spotlighted. The good news is that the Omaha Symphony musicians are skillful; the bad news is that the music felt cold and a bit lifeless. Further, the performance missed the arc of the music and story. It seemed to sputter in place as if Mendelssohn’s ship hit the doldrums and lacked forward motion.
Next, principal flute Maria Harding joined the orchestra to perform Christopher Rouse’s 1994 Flute Concerto. Rouse was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music was widely performed and admired throughout his career. As classical composing styles fled the experimental years of the 1940s-60s, a new American style emerged characterized as “accessible” — that is: understandable at first hearing and having melodic and rhythmic complexity. Rouse’s Flute Concerto is an example of such accessible music.
The piece has five sections played without a break, although it’s easy to detect when a new section starts through changes in mood and tempo. Rouse said the two outer movements were heavily influenced by Celtic music. The second and fourth movements have fast tempi, and the fourth is also similar to a classical Scherzo, both playful and light. The searing third movement commemorates the shocking murder of a two-year-old child by two ten-year-old children in the UK. The elegiac music rises and falls with beautiful lyricism, the mood of which harkens back to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Patel and the Omaha Symphony musicians brought life and intensity to the playing. Harding was absolutely virtuosic, and she and Patel seemed to share a vision of the music, which made for a compelling performance. The acoustics seemed less of an issue here since Rouse’s compositional style can tolerate the clinical acoustics.
Next was Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae for string orchestra, originally written in 2000 for a string quartet and subsequently rearranged for a larger string ensemble. Golijov’s music combines various musical traditions (e.g. Argentine, Israeli) into compositions that are the very essence of contemporary accessibility.
The music was composed after he had taken his son to experience a planetarium for the first time during a period of increased violence in the Middle East. Tenebrae is intense, moody, and achingly beautiful. Its three sections are played without a break, with the outer two being reflective and the middle one being powerful and mournful.
Interestingly, Golijov includes a string quartet within the string orchestra, a technique used in the Tallis Variations by Ralph Vaughn Williams. The piece is gorgeous, and the OS strings were excellent. The low strings provided solid bass, and the violins and violas had a full, shimmery golden sound that is sometimes missing when the Symphony performs at its home, the Holland Center.
The final work was Stravinsky’s 1935 Jeu de Cartes, written for a ballet of the same name. It was written during Stravinky’s neoclassical period, characterized by a return to more traditional forms, structures, and techniques reminiscent of the Classical and Baroque eras while still incorporating modern harmonic language.
The ballet tells the story of a poker game with the characters representing different cards in a deck. There are three sections titled “The First Deal,” “The Second Deal,” and “The Shuffle.” The music is supposed to be witty, charming, and balletic.
Unfortunately, this performance did not quite prove to be any of those. The Omaha Symphony hit all the notes but seemed directionless; a ballet dancer would be hard-pressed to be inspired by this performance. It appeared that Mr. Patel decided he would not leave his mark on the fairly well-known piece.
Yes, a half loaf (Rouse and Golijov) was quite good and a good deal better than no loaf. Mr. Patel undoubtedly shows promise, but he was unable to fulfill it in two staples of the concert repertoire. The Omaha Symphony, for its part, remains a talented ensemble well deserving of a Grammy nomination. ■