It was all Russian last night at the Omaha Symphony (OS) with guest conductor Bulgarian-born Stilian Kirov. He is currently music director of the Illinois Philharmonic and is a graduate of the Juilliard School, and he has held associate conductor positions at the Seattle Symphony and Memphis Symphony. Maestro Kirov addressed the audience while the piano was moved center stage for the Tchaikovsky; he has a charming manner, composed of a bit of awkwardness and intellect. His conducting manner, however, is understated and controlled.
The program began with Shostakovich's 1954- Festival Overture. It is much less portentous than his other works that seemed mostly designed to be a comment on Communist rule, and especially Stalin. It could be considered a glimpse of what might have been had the composer lived where it was not necessary to continually make political comment through his music. It begin with a brass fanfare that was played beautifully here, except for a light raggedness at the very beginning. But overall, it was well-played and a great way to open a concert.
The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto followed, with soloist Tanya Gabrielian. This way overplayed concerto is difficult to play in a manner that wrings out new meaning. And Ms. Gabrielian's performance was no exception. She and Kirov seemed to share a musical vision of the work, and the OS played a very sympathetic accompaniment. The first movement was grand with its well-known introduction that has little to do with the remainder of the work. The second movement Andantino semplice, was played with as slow a tempo as one could imagine, and seemed almost to go somnambulant in the last third of the movement. The final movement was suitably colorful with just the right amount of bombast. But Ms. Gabrielian, who seems to have great technical proficiency, had some usual phrasing that at times interrupted the music's flow. It was as if she was trying not to make a mistake, and in doing so, misshaped the musical line a bit.
The final work was the majestic Prokofiev Symphony No. 5, a masterpiece of 20th century music. Maestro Killian and the OS gave an inspired performance. Some of the highlights included a hair-raising finale to the First Movement, Andante. The second movement, Allegro Moderato, was playful with a brisk tempo. The third movement, Adagio, was suitably dark and mysterious. The fourth movement Allegro gracioso, which revisits the main themes of the previous movements, was thrilling, and again built to a powerful climax.
The OS consists of 42 employed musicians, with others added as needed. But nevertheless, the orchestra plays with cohesion and musicality. The brass are very, very good, and the French horns would make a larger orchestra proud. The cellos are precise orchestral balances seemed quite good. The acoustics of the Kiewit Auditorium at the Holland Center are magnificent, affording a nice wide, but integrated stage. Maestro Kirov was impressive, and likely has a great future. It was a very satisfying concert.