Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Half a loaf is better than no loaf....



The Grammy-nominated Omaha Symphony (OS), 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 OS 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 at times mimics the rocking of the sailing vessel as well as themes expressing the awe and excitement of the composer’s experience.  It did  not take long to hear that the acoustics of the hall 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 the OS musicians are skillfu;, the bad news 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 performed Christopher Rouses’ 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 1940’s-60’s, a new American style emerged that is characterized as “accessible, ”  that is, understandable at first hearing, and has melodic and rhythmic complexity.  Rouse’s Flute Concerto is an example of such accessible music.  The piece has five sections that are played without break, although it’s easy to detect when a new section starts through changes of mood and tempi.  Rouse said the two outer movements were heavily influenced by Celtic music. The second and fourth movements have fast tempi and the fourth also is similar to the classical  Scherzo, both playful and light.  The searing third movement is a tribute to 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 Barber’s Adagio for Strings.   Patel and the OS 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 for the first time a planetarium during a period of increased violence in the Middle East.  Tenebrae is intense, moody, and achingly beautiful.  Its three sections are played without 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 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. This 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 and charming and balletic.  Unfortunately this performance did not quite prove to be any of those.  All the notes were hit, but the OS seemed directionless; a ballet dancer would be hard pressed to be inspired with this performance. It seemed that Mr. Patel decided he was not going to 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 OS for its part remains a talented ensemble well deserving of a  Grammy nomination. 

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