Tuesday, April 17, 2018


The Omaha Chamber Music Society presented one of its "Eko Nova Sound Unbound" concerts at Kaneko, the studio and gallery of ceramic artist Jun Kaneko.  Kaneko is a refurbished warehouse in Omaha's Old Market District; the concert was held in a large rectangular room with cement floors and red-brick walls.  The hard surfaces  lent a certain cathedral ambiance to the concert.

Featured was cellist and composer Joshua Roman and the JACK quartet, which has dedicated itself to the performance of new music.  The Boston Globe referred to the quartet as "the superheroes of new music."  For certain pieces, Roman helps the quartet grow to quintet size.

The first work was "Quintet" composed by Jefferson Friedman in 2013.  It was inspired by the passing of his father and it has the qualities of an elegy. This was followed by the frenetic 2017 "Ouroboros" by John Zorn.  The first part of the program ended with Amy Williams 2011 "Richter Tesctures."  It is a seven-part work, with each section being inspired by a painting by Gerhard Richter.  The sections are only numbered and the program provided no information of the correspondence between the section and the painting that inspired it.  All three of these works were complex and, is often the case, are difficult to describe based on only one hearing.

After the intermission, the Quartet played an Streisfeld 2011 arrangement of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa' 1611 "Three Madrigals for Five Voices from Madrigali libra sexto.  This music is gorgeous, full and rich.  It was magnificently played and the cathedral-like acoustics were a perfect match for the music.

The final work, by Joshua Roman, was titled "Tornado."  Written in 2017, it is a tour de force , even a masterpiece, that sonically describes the effects of a tornado on a town,  The composer was born in Tornado Alley (Oklahoma actually), so he knows first-hand the sounds of these most violent of storms.  Employing every string-playing technique possible he managed to convey wind, rain, sirens, fear, and recovery. Also, the introduction of the work includes some lovely themes like that are not often heard in 21st century music. At times the texture of "Tornado" were so thick, it was as if an entire string orchestra was playing.  AMC hopes that this piece is heard far and wide- its that good.

There were about 300 people in the audience.  It was a nice turn-out for this sometimes challenging music. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cold Weather, Warm Concert...

April weather in Nebraska is unpredictable, the onset of a winter storm with blowing snow is never welcome.  But the Omaha Symphony, under Music Director Thomas Wilkins, providing some welcome musical heat.  The OS has the Holland Performing Arts Center as its home; it is a facility with extraordinary acoustics. The sound of the orchestra is warm and never muddied; for example, percussive sounds  are never smeared and every strike of the tympani can be heard, without sacrificing fully focused and integrated sound.  The strings are wrapped in wonderful reverberation that creates a golden timbre.  The sound wall can sometimes seem a bit distant, but the volume of the full orchestra is never ear-splitting.  The Holland provides the audience with a gift of fine sound.

The first work was Bernstein's "Slava: A Political Overture," which was composed to celebrate the arrival of Mstislav Rostropovich as the Music director of the  National Symphony in Washington, DC in 1977.  It is a light-weight piece that seems mostly like rehash of Bernstein's Overture to "Candide." It is brassy, percussive, rhythmic, and cheerful.  The composer added in some audio effects, mostly excerpts from hackneyed political speeches.  At the conclusion of the work, the orchestra members shout Slava!  This gimmicky work is a good way to start a concert and it won't be troublesome if I have to wait till the next centenary of Bernstein's birth to hear it again.

Bernstein's "Serenade, after Plato's Symposium" followed on the program. This is the third performance I have heard of this work in the past two months.  The first was in mid-February at Lincoln's Lied Center, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony with violin soloist  
Kobi Malkin and the second was about a week ago with Robert McDuffie, violin, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The soloist in the present performance was Liza Ferschtman, who gave a strong performance, but without the searing intensity or absolute technical mastery of either Malkin or McDuffie.  The overall performance was fine, but it lacked the intensity and tension of either the Saint Louis or Atlanta efforts. Without doubt, the acoustics of the Holland added greatly to experience. Acoustically, the Lied Center was a close runner-up, with Atlanta's Symphony Hall trailing considerably. 

The final work was  Mahler's  Fourth Symphony.  It is a resplendent work, with wonderful lyricism and great beauty. Maestro Wilkins obtained some fine playing from the OS in the first movement,  from the sleigh bells to the  clarion flute melody in the middle of the movement.  The second movement, however, lacked integration and seem to move forward in a series of fits and starts.  This was likely due to some  ragged entrances by various sections of the orchestra.  The third movement, with its gorgeous introduction, was lyrical and warm and the music progressed in a nicely controlled fashion, as it lead to a grand climax that reiterates the flute solo from the first movement, played by the brass.  This movement was a opportunity to hear some fine playing from the OS cellos, violas and double bass.  The final movement introduces a soprano, here Amy Owens, who sings Das kimmlishe Leben.  Ms Owens's nice voice  struggled to be heard over the orchestra at the start of the movement, but as the music progressed, her voice grew stronger and more accessible. In all, this was a beautiful, golden-sounding conclusion to this monumental work.

At some points in the Mahler, the violins had some absolutely remarkable ensemble.  The brass were quite strong throughout, with some great playing by the horns, save for a few intonation issues.  The English horn played with a rich gentleness.  The violin solos, played by Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore and Associate Concertmaster  Ann Beebe, were both musically and technically brilliant.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Parts were good...

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued its traversal of the music of Beethoven and Bernstein while adding a punch of contemporary music by Michael Kurth, ASO double bass player and composer. Kurth’s Fanfare for Orchestra was written in 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of Robert Spano's tenure as Music Director. This four-minute piece is brass and percussion driven, full of energy and color. In this performance, as the brass became louder, the sounds of the other sections of the orchestra receded; the violins were bowing furiously while hardly a note of their playing could be heard. It’s unclear if this was the composer’s intent or Maestro Spano’s direction. Kurth has grown tremendously as a composer over the past eight years and his recent works are a combination of lyrical themes contrasted with dissonant aggressiveness. The ASO is rightfully supportive of his work, which it will record in May. This should help ensure that this emerging talent receives a wider, well-deserved audience.  For the complete review, go here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-bernstein-beethoven-mcduffie-spano-atlanta-april-2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mulligan again!

For Stephen Mulligan, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, metaphoric lightning has struck twice this year. About a month ago he had to step in for ailing music director Robert Spano, and this week he had to take up the baton again as a replacement for the similarly indisposed guest conductor, Henrik Nanasi. In the latter instance, Mulligan conducted the already scheduled program; this week, the ASO altered the program to accommodate the young assistant.  For the complete review, click here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-mulligan-abduraimov-atlanta-symphony-march-2018
Photos:  Jeff Roman

Monday, March 5, 2018

De Waart and Hadelich are first-rate...

Each year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra attracts a bevy of top-tiered solo performers, but it rarely manages to schedule the world’s top-tier of conductors, or the top-tier of those based in the US. But his week’s pair of concerts featured one of the top names of the conducting world, maestro Edo de Waart. With a career that began in the early 1960s, de Waart has been music director of about 12 different orchestras and opera companies worldwide. He has also been a guest conductor to nearly every major international orchestra and opera company. He has been described as “tetchy” and outspoken by journalists, yet he continues to garner new appointments, with the most recent being a contract to be the music director of the New Zealand Symphony. Given that some guest conductors have brought out the best in the ASO, de Waart’s visit has been highly anticipated. For the complete review, click here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-shostakovich-rachmaninov-atlanta-symphony-hall-hadelich-de-waart-march-2018

Photos by Jeff Roffman: 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Berlin Piano Quartet....

The Berlin Piano Quartet Andrea Buschatz, violin; Matthew Hunter, viola; Knut Weber, cello and Markus Groh, piano, presented a concert at the Lied Center on February 21, 2018.  If ever there was a definition of the perfectly integrated sound of piano and strings, this was it. This quartet seems to concentrate on making a homogenous sound, where one instrument doesn’t dominate (unless required by the music) a performance.  Too often, one hears chamber groups where the piano or first violin is too prominent.  That is never an issue with the BPQ.  The concert began with Schubert’s 1816- “Adagio e Rondo Concertante” D487.  This early work of composer is firmly in the classical style and does not yet show the strong gift for melody that eventually became his hallmark.  It was designed as a display piece for the piano soloist. Two movements without break comprise the work; the first is an adagio and the second a rondo.  The BPQ played with gorgeous tone, and Mr. Weber’s cello was especially noticeable for its rich and warm sound.  Pianist Groh was marvelous, never exploiting the spotlight provided by the composer; he also avoids histrionics while playing. 

The second work was the 1891- Piano Quartet, Opus 1 in A minor by Josef Suk.  While we do not hear much from this composer in the US, he was a student of Dvorak, who is, of course, very frequently heard here.  The Piano Quartet is an immensely romantic work that can trace its sound back to both Dvorak and the thick, dense harmonies of Brahms. The work has three movements, beginning with an Allegro appassionato, followed by a middle slow movement, and ending with an Allegro con fuoco finale.  THE BPQ managed to wring every bit of drama out of the music so that its intensity was magnified by their combined power.

Composer Danny Elfman was present at the Lied Center for the world premiere of his Piano Quartet, which was commissioned by the Center and the BPQ.  Elfman is particularly known for his film music, and also for his two-decade-long affiliation as lead singer/songwriter for the band Oingo Boingo.   He has won some 35 awards for his music, especially for films.  The Piano Quartet has five sections.  The first, “Ein Ding,” requires some really rapid fingering in the strings, and in its mid-section, it was apparent that Mr. Elfman has been influenced by composer Philip Glass.  The second movement, “Kindersport,” has many references to songs familiar to children on a playground.  It was full of energy and spirit.  The third movement, also with references to Glass, is titled “Duett fur Vier.”  The fourth and fifth sections (“Ruhig” and “Die Wolfsjungen”) continue to demonstrate Elfman’s creativity, as well as the astounding virtuosity of the Berlin players.  Elfman’s work is listenable and likely will find an audience quickly.  Elfman graciously accepted the audience’s prolonged applause.  It’s interesting to note that the relationship between the BPQ and Elfman began out of an invitation to hear the Berlin Philharmonic from concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, formerly of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  Bendix-Balgley has developed an impressive international presence and his introduction of Elfman to the BPQ was indeed fortuitous.

The final work was the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor.  This, like the Suk, is an intensely Romantic piece with thick, rich, and dark harmonies that characterized much of the composer’s work.  The third movement is an Andante that is lyrical and touching.  This is Brahms at his most personal and vibrant.  The BPQ played masterfully, leaving no musical stone unturned in this dramatic work. 

In response to the audience applause, the BPQ played an excerpt from Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Op. 47. 

This was a grand chamber concert played in the 2400- seat Lied auditorium.  Because of the Lied acoustics, and possibly the panels used to shrink the size of the stage, the sound was still intimate and chamber-like.  The audience seemed to number around 800 patrons- not bad for a cold winter Wednesday in Nebraska.  

A Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Concert...

The Omaha Symphony (OS) presented a concert at the Witherspoon Concert Hall of the Joslyn Museum.  The Witherspoon has a seating capacity of about 1000 and it is a well-maintained Art Deco space that is both simple and classic.  Its light fixtures alone are worth at least a glance.

Actually, the OS was configured as a chamber orchestra, in order to fit onto the smallish Witherspoon stage.  The conductor was Courtney Lewis, the music director of the Jacksonville Symphony. 

The concert began with a spirited performance of Mozart’s “Overture to Don Giovanni.”  This was followed by Tartini’s “Concerto in A Major for Violoncello and Orchestra,” with soloist Paul Ledwon, who also happens to be the principal cello of the OS. Ledwon played with a rich tone, although he seemed a bit unsteady in the first movement.

Stravinsky’s 1938 neo-classical “Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks” was next on the program.  The OS strings were nicely coordinated and had a sweet sound, even given the somewhat dry acoustics of the hall.  The woodwinds were impressive for their accuracy and the French horn was masterfully played.  It is rewarding to hear the horn played with assurance, accuracy, and without hesitation.  Stravinsky’s music is spare and pleasant and was afforded a very good performance, under Maestro Lewis. 
The final work was Haydn’s 1782- “Symphony No. 73 in D major “La chasse”.”  The final movement features hunting calls, a popular trope in the composer’s day.  A harpsichord was located in the middle of the orchestra and was well-integrated with the orchestra. The four-movement symphony is pleasant and it was perfect for the OS chamber setting.