The 2021 season of the Omaha Symphony is shaping up to have incredible distinctions, which seems fitting for its centennial year.
Music Director Thomas Wilkins began his final months with the orchestra on Saturday night, conducting the ensemble on “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Antonín Dvorák’s “Symphony No. 8.”
The entire experience has been reimagined for the pandemic, which delayed the start of the season.
To promote distancing, the orchestra was reduced by about half. And because each piece of music has slightly different instrumental needs even without a pandemic, only 40 to 50 musicians were on the Holland Center stage at a given time.
The seats of the reduced ensemble were spread across the entire stage with no risers. The brass section was above the rest of the orchestra in the choir loft. There was no printed program; patrons linked to it on their phones.
And buoyed by the Holland’s world-class acoustics, the new configuration of the orchestra made the listener feel surrounded by the various sections.
It was refreshing to see that behind the masks of the reduced-capacity crowd were people of all ages representing a diverse cross-section of Omaha’s classical music fans.
All these details made for an unforgettable concert and were strangely appropriate for an event that would have been extraordinary even without a pandemic.
It marked the first of Wilkins’ final five concerts as music director, a position he has occupied since 2005.
After the season ends in June, Wilkins will retire and become the orchestra’s director emeritus. He will be succeeded by internationally renowned conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl.
The Vaughan Williams piece was a remarkable return to the Masterworks series after the extended break. Textures and structures from the 20th and 16th centuries played with each other, weaving in and out of haunting melodies and sweet harmonic landscapes.
Between that piece and the rest of the concert, Wilkins expressed his affection for Dvorák, the Holland Center, the Omaha Symphony and the city itself.
“Dvorák is one of my all-time favorite composers,” he told the audience. “He is comfortable in his own skin, not afraid to show you where his heart is.”
Wilkins related that sentiment to how he has been embraced by Omaha and the orchestra for the last 15 years.
He expressed gratitude for all the ways the patrons, supporters and members of the organization have been generous in making the orchestra what it is today.
“What I will remember most about this community,” he said, “(is) you have given us a voice. This is not happening in every corner of the globe. (Thank you) for your generosity of bravery, so we can have someone to share this music with.”
The Dvorák “Symphony No. 8,” was grand, living up to the inspirational introduction by Wilkins. High energy and addictive to the ear, the piece’s melodies were constantly exciting.
Despite being a man of eloquent speech and elegant gesture, Wilkins succeeded once again in allowing the music to have the last word.
The splendid set concluded and as Wilkins was acknowledging the soloists and sections, the standing ovation was immediate, and the vigorous applause called the maestro back to the stage a second time.