Symphony doesn’t take a backseat to thrilling visitors -
Published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:30 am
Symphony doesn’t take a backseat to thrilling visitors

It surely must be fun to be part of the Omaha Symphony when Matt Catingub leads a Symphony Rocks concert.

It’s certainly a joy to hear them. Musical magic from the 1970s returned to the Holland Performing Arts Center Saturday night as guest conductor-pianist Catingub, vocalist Anita Hall and drummer Steve Moretti grooved with the symphony to the hits of jazz-rock giants Blood Sweat & Tears, Steely Dan and Chicago.

The two-hour show was a true reunion — not a simple return visit for the three visiting artists who thrilled the Holland with a broader-based ’70s concert in May 2012. For when Catingub comes to town and opens his bottomless cabinet of pop, rock and jazz arrangements, he and his guests are bound to become part of the symphony — not performers in front of it.

This observation isn’t at all meant to denigrate the tribute bands and other guest performers who appear each year in the Symphony Rocks and Symphony Pops series. All of them turn in highly professional performances, and some also excite the audience. But, all too often, the singers and rhythm section dominate the sound while the orchestra’s talents and versatility are wasted, if not left redundant.

Catingub doesn’t put music together that way. His arrangements truly integrate the orchestra, rhythm section and vocalists so all are critical to each song’s success. He gives familiar melodies or signature solo “riffs” to different orchestral sections without disturbing the groove that put a song in the Top 40 in the first place.

His knack for making every musician on stage a full partner in the performance was evident as early as the evening’s second song, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” As the first act wrapped up a trio of Blood Sweat & Tears tunes and moved through the best of the Steely Dan catalog, audience members in the first few rows could see as well as hear how much symphony members were enjoying the gig.

As for examples of letting the orchestra shine, well, who could have imagined using a rumbling solo bass trombone (played by Jay Wise) to present an iconic riff at the end of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now”? His was the most unusual of a series of hot solos from the symphony’s ranks, including Darren Pettit and Ken Janak on saxophone, Mike Gurciullo on trumpet and Jason Stromquist on trombone.

During the all-Chicago second act and encore, the ensemble’s chemistry was wafting all through the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall. Much of the radiance came from Anita Hall, whose stunning outfits merely complemented her confident, sultry singing style that evokes the best of Toni Tennille and Melissa Manchester. She and Catingub split the vocals and combined for impressive duets.

Even when Catingub’s arrangements take a song somewhere new, the result rings true. He opened Chicago’s “Color My World” with a shimmering, poignant string variation, then personally played a mere snippet of the familiar piano arpeggio. The score settled into a pleasing jazz-ballad groove featuring cool electric-bass stylings from James Giles, a fixture in the symphony’s string-bass section for more than three decades.

Drummer Moretti lay down powerful beats throughout, capped by an amazing solo at the end of Steely Dan’s “Aja” to end the first act. Local guitarist Jeff Scheffler superbly rounded out the rhythm section.

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