Rarely has the intimacy between the Omaha Symphony, its conductor and its audience been more pronounced than it was Saturday night.
That feeling definitely was reinforced by the symphony's one-night Academy Awards tribute program, “Evening at the Oscars,” which afforded Music Director Thomas Wilkins yet another set of opportunities to teach and joke with his Holland Performing Arts Center listeners.
But the distance between concertgoers and performers all but vanished at the end of the first act, as Wilkins and the orchestra were presenting Jerry Goldsmith's tense and disturbing “The Hunt” from “Planet of the Apes.” The piece was nearing the peak of its intensity, driven by violins, cellos, percussive rat-a-tats and insistent piano rumblings, when Wilkins abruptly waved off his ensemble.
He had a good reason for doing so: KahYee Lee, a first violinist, had fainted and slumped to the floor. But Wilkins first briefly diverted the audience's attention by making it seem as though his sudden stop was planned. “I'm scared,” he said in a half-amused tone. “I've got to take a break.” He then left the stage.
As several orchestra members gathered around Lee, a man in the audience quickly responded to the call for a doctor. He helped revive Lee and lead her off the stage as the audience members — most of whom had remained in their places — applauded. When the doctor returned to his seat, he said Lee apparently had become overheated.
After intermission and the first piece of the second act (John Williams' “Adventures on Earth” from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”), Wilkins once again reached for his microphone. “Yes, she's fine,” he said, adding that Lee had been alert and talking backstage. She didn't want to go to the hospital until “these three hunky paramedics came,” he added, setting off laughter.
Then he turned serious. “I cannot tell you how deeply touched we all were on stage when you all rushed up when our colleague fell and then you stayed and applauded when she was OK,” Wilkins said. “This is how your orchestra applauds you.” And the ensemble clapped, tapped their instruments and pounded their feet in tribute.
The show went on, as it usually does in music and show business. The symphony was its typical exciting, highly polished self both before and after Lee was overcome. The concert reached its highly anticipated climax when the Omaha Symphonic Chorus and the University of Nebraska at Omaha Concert and Chamber Choirs joined the symphony for “Bilbo's Song” (from “The Lord of the Rings” series) and a “Ben-Hur” suite.
But an atypical night clearly does not call for a typical concert review. I've had the pleasure and honor of describing most of the Omaha Symphony's performances for World-Herald readers for nearly three years. Regular concertgoers know well what Wilkins told the audience once again Saturday night: To attend a symphony concert in Omaha is to share the joy of music with friends who just happen to be the ones playing on stage.
The same Hollywood that has bequeathed such splendid movie music as “The Big Country,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River” (all on Saturday night's program) also delights far too often in portraying orchestras and their audiences as insufferably stuffy and aloof. Whether or not that's true in other cities, it is demonstrably not true in Omaha.
By shattering the “fourth wall” between stage and audience, Wilkins and Resident Conductor Ernest Richardson regularly nurture this delightful intimacy. On Saturday, their Holland family was at its best.