The Omaha Symphony returned to the stage Friday night at the Holland Performing Arts Center with music that was light, flirty and stirring by turns. “Brahms & Sibelius” featured selections from three composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries and proved a remarkable introduction to the symphony’s 93rd season.
Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was omitted from the concert title for some reason, but no matter; he got his due at the beginning as the symphony opened with the overture to “The Bartered Bride,” a comic opera. The overture is often played on its own and for good reason. It is winningly romantic and, influenced by Smetana’s eastern European roots, has echoes of a spritely, lively folksong.
Throughout this piece, it was clear that conductor Thomas Wilkins was setting the tone for an evening that would be dominated by the spirit of Romanticism, the time period when the featured compositions were written. It was an era full of expressions of heightened emotion and patriotism, and its music is demanding on many levels. Wilkins gave himself fully over to the music, and his generosity as a conductor elicited the best from his musicians.
The evening featured soloists Amy Schwartz Moretti on violin and Robert DeMaine on cello. They were transcendent together for Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto in A Minor, which Brahms composed in 1887. He wrote it — so the story goes — as a peace-making gesture for his friend violinist Joseph Joachim with whom he had a falling out after the latter’s divorce. (Brahms — to Joachim’s great displeasure — took the wife’s side.)
It is a sweeping piece and is always a thrill to see performed, because it requires not one, but two virtuosos with equal skill and interpretive ability who can balance, challenge and complement one another for a sustained period.
Moretti and DeMaine more than filled that requirement. Their playing was buoyant, beautiful and poetic, with the two musicians fleshing out the purported purpose of the piece — the reconciliation of old friends — with a perfectly coordinated performance. It is a conversation involving shared memories, anger, bitterness, regret and the harmonic happiness of reconciliation; in short, the concerto is replete with complex emotions.
The evening rounded out with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony in D Major, written in 1902. Although he experienced only the tail end of the Romantic era, Sibelius wrote a symphony that is full of the heightened, intense drama so characteristic of the era. With its lilting melodies and gorgeous climaxes, it’s one of the most popular of the composer’s works. Wilkins led the symphony through surging transitions, letting the brass section ring out precisely when needed while allowing the strings to provide the orchestra’s unity.
Throughout, “Brahms & Sibelius” (and Smetana) showcased the symphony’s power as an orchestra and demonstrated just what it’s capable of achieving. Its 93rd promises to be a season not to be missed.