The Omaha Symphony celebrated its 100th birthday a few days early with an old friend.
World-renowned cellist Joshua Roman returned to the Holland Center stage Friday night for an eclectic MasterWorks concert that thrilled audiences and visibly moved retiring Music Director Thomas Wilkins.
The concert began with a roar of applause as Wilkins took the stage for one of his final appearances as the symphony’s leader. At the welcome, he placed his hand over his heart and nodded in tearful gratitude.
Roman’s performance, his sixth with the orchestra, was the centerpiece of the evening.
His interpretation of “Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Cello” by Camille Saint-Saëns was masterful. He received a standing ovation and returned to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Cello as a mid-concert encore, taking a moment to dedicate the piece to the retiring conductor.
Roman thanked Omaha for allowing him the opportunity to return to a live audience and said Wilkins is one of his favorite collaborators.
The characteristics he used to describe the Bach selection — “simple, open and direct” — were the same he said he treasures most in Wilkins.
He and Wilkins embraced as his performance earned another encore.
The evening opened with “Four Scottish Dances” by Malcolm Arnold, a playful and brief tour de force for a symphony that remains smaller than usual because of the pandemic.
In the piece, the brass soared with folksy Gaelic rhythms and bombastic fanfare over the continuously humming texture of the strings.
Next was a suite from the ballet music of “Hiawatha” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The piece is a rarely performed conglomeration from a Taylor cantata that previously existed only in fragments.
While popular at the time of its composition, recordings of “Hiawatha” are either rare or singular, Wilkins told the crowd. A definitive conductor’s score of the work didn’t exist before he began preparing for the concert.
It’s always touching when he takes the time to recognize the patrons, technicians, administrators, volunteers and staff who make the remarkable work of the orchestra possible.
This time, he singled out Sara Baguyos, the symphony’s head librarian, who collaborated with the Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg to compile comprehensive orchestral and conductor editions of the Taylor work before Friday’s concert. Wilkins also will conduct the piece later this year in Florida.
On Friday night, the suite was well worth the effort. This musical expression of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” was captivating. It combined Native American rhythmic homages with lyric 19th-century American orchestrations.
The final selection of the evening was Maurice Ravel’s Suite from “Ma Mère l’Oye” or “Mother Goose,” preceded by yet more applause for Wilkins.
“You’re killing me,” Wilkins joked as he quieted the crowd to discuss the symphony’s century-long history.
He then became overcome, crumpled his notes and spoke from the heart.
“Listen, you guys rock,” he told the audience. “The way you have surrounded us is not only poetic, it’s downright heartfelt … and it will go on because you are who you are.”
More applause ensued. The Ravel was stunning.
And the concert ended with a fourth standing ovation. But who’s counting?