COCKTAILS, MAESTRO, MUSEUMS, AND VISION: KEEPING ORCHESTRAL PRESENTATION EVER FRESH WITH THE OMAHA SYMPHONYRead Now
It was a privilege earlier this month to speak with Maestro Bahl about his, and his staff’s efforts to remove barriers between the patronage of Omaha, and our fabulous symphony. The Omaha Symphony and her concert venue at the Holland Center are world class. Attendance at most of her events is enthusiastic. However, classical music is a funny nut to crack in a digital age. It is my belief, and my goal (and I am unashamed of these biases) that our city’s population should begin a renewal of devotion to the orchestral medium and clamor over each other to experience what if offers.
“What’s been wrong in the past is the packaging,” Maestro said, “My goal as a music director of a great orchestra in a great town like Omaha, is to make sure that people don’t feel like there’s a barrier of entry. In fact, I want to meet them where they are. I want to be involved in their lives, their voices, and their artistry.” I too have long been flummoxed that people feel so distanced from a medium, which in my experience offers such a profoundly intimate encounter with the world’s greatest imaginations.
The Symphony itself is more than doing its part. This month alone, the spectacle, the repertoire, the venues, and the discourse made available to our city, were inspiring. There were dancers projected on screens above Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango. Stravinsky, Bach, Copland, Debussy, and other greats sounded as duets with the great works of art, and acoustically thrilling spaces of the Joslyn Art Museum at Maestro’s Mixtape.
This weekend the incredible Michael Cavanaugh will adorn the Symphony’s well rounded repertory crown with a concert tribute to Billy Joel.
What is this barrier between “Joe and Jane Omaha” and the Symphony? Well, there isn’t one to be honest. Tickets are affordable, tuxes are not required, you can drink your wine through the whole show, and they are presenting everything from Beethoven to the ABBA each season.
The barrier is in the mind of our culture. Prime time sitcom ridden supper conversation and a 24-hour news cycle, present classical music as “in the background.” It’s brought up, or interspersed like a memory from a bygone era. Much more disappointing, sometimes its presented in such a bad context or in ill-equipped performances, that people mistakenly believe they actually “dislike” classical music altogether.
Classical music is more than a genre. It’s an entire language. But more than simply a language of sound, it’s a language of emotion, imagination, structure, and context. Just as it would be ignorant to say “I don’t like French,” it’s preposterous to blankly assert “I don’t like Classical music.”
“There’s something beautiful about that culture we have to still experience.” Maestro Bahl said to me, about Russian music specifically, in preparation for the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody 2 weeks ago. But like so much of Maestro’s wisdom, that sentiment can be applied to our reception of almost every example of Classical music at its finest. These orchestral accomplishments represent a comprehensive glimpse of different human realities across space and time.
Classical music’s ubiquitous nature allows the properties within, which are most enriching, to hide in plain sight. We don’t even know that we “already speak” this language. But we deserve for the benefit of our soul, mind, and heart, to give it a chance. Not once, not twice, but endlessly, because once all of YOU finally have your revelatory moment, you’ll meet the piece of musical history you didn’t even know was written just for you. You won’t turn back. It may sound like I am giving you a prescription, because I am. Go to the Holland, maybe even for the Billy Joel tribute, if not, for anything else they are presenting soon. If you need the lubrication, the wine is actually pretty nice. Sit there, and take it in. You merit the gift of letting this timeless idiomatic part of our culture change you.
On March 11th and 12th, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was presented alongside Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. During the Daugherty piece in particular, a massive screen hovered above the orchestra. Midway through this captivating tango Fredrick Davis and Alexandra Hoffman, of the Midwest American Ballet, appeared on the canvas in a smart black suit and a stunning red dress. They brought the tango to life. The music was familiar and new, braiding an ever-present dance rhythm from both cinematic and cultural history, with the swirling landscape of Daugherty’s epic style.
Hoffman was a flawless but sultry ingenue. Her technique in the video, weaving in and out of the sunlight splashed across the Holland’s grand stair cast a spell alongside the music. Davis was strong, and seductive as well leaping, and spinning with and around his partner in a tremendously satisfying way.
At Maestro’s Mixtape on March 16th, the Symphony co-starred with the unbelievably live spaces of the Joslyn Art Museum itself. Much like at her home, the Holland, the Symphony let some wine and spirits make a welcome cameo in the Storz Fountain Court.
Patrons circled through the venues created on the Strauss Bridge, the Scott Gallery, the U.S. Bank and Rismiller Galleries, and the Witherspoon Concert Hall. Surrounded by the art deco masterpiece that is our gem of a museum, patrons strolled through performances of Bach beneath Guido Reni’s David and Goliath, then absorbed William Grant Still standing next to Kehinde Wiley’s Three Girls in a Wood. The spaces were entrancing. The wild and full acoustic capabilities of these halls, made me wonder why we haven’t been going to string quartet concerts in this museum, every weekend.
The Maestros Ernest Richardson, Ankush Kumar Bahl, Deanna Tham and Austin Chanu also joined the audience for a quick break and some Q and A around the fountains between sets. Chris Allen, the general manager of Omaha’s Classical Radio, KVNO, facilitated the conversation.
Tham was rapturous about the possibilities of the space in the Joslyn: “This is music exploding out of the ensemble, visually!” She continued, “The space takes over the music…. [it’s] immersive in a completely different way than our other hall.”
Richardson was his best effusive self, continuing to illustrate the possibilities of music in this grandiose yet intimate setting: “Music is always written for a specific place and time. In this space we had to be very cognizant that any gesture will keep sounding. I loved the proximity of the players to the audience.”
Coming soon in the Omaha Symphony conversation “We have 3 world premieres next year,” Maestro Bahl boasted. He proudly asserts that we are offering an orchestral presentation that’s connected to the music happening today. While the repertoire of the past is tremendous, interacting with the work of composers still living can ignite a community’s inspiration and imagination for the medium. Maestro quipped that “We can’t have Beethoven on the phone. But we can talk to these people.” Audiences can trust that these world premieres have been personally touched in the rehearsal process by the composers who crafted them. We are blessed to live in a time when technology makes the world small enough to bring these minds and persons together with more ease than has ever been possible before.
There’s so much visual, architectural, stylistic, and conversational integration happening with this ensemble. Moreover, it all happens in a deeply streamlined and intentional way. You simply must give it a chance. Maybe, I’ll see you at the Billy Joel tribute. But I promise, these Maestros and their musicians have done more than you can imagine to make sure you can see that this music, is for you.
I grew up in church music and musical theatre. From my collegiate career and beyond I've traveled through opera, the symphony, the theatre and worship as a student, a performer, an entrepreneur, and a journalistic correspondent. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to share with you some of the incredible and fascinating endeavors I continue to undertake in music and the arts. I don't need you to see the world the way I do, but I'll do everything I can to help you enjoy it as much as I have.