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.