Ludwig van Beethoven may headline this weekend's Omaha Symphony program, but make no mistake: The experience at Friday night's opener was truly a “Roman Carnival.”
That description, borrowed from the evening's leadoff overture (written by Hector Berlioz, composer of the famous “Symphonie Fantastique”), amply describes the tour de force that was cellist Joshua Roman's performance of Friedrich Gulda's eclectic Cello Concerto of 1980.
Roman, accompanied by a stripped-down orchestra of only 16 pieces, closes the first act of the program that will be repeated at 8 p.m. today. The full orchestra then returns after intermission to present Beethoven's idyllic Sixth Symphony of 1808, the “Pastorale.”
The weekend marks a memorable return to the Holland Performing Arts Center for Roman, a young star among U.S. cellists who turned heads and ears with his virtuoso presentation of Edouard Lalo's Cello Concerto in D minor with the symphony in November 2011.
That program, led by guest conductor Alastair Willis, offered Music Director Thomas Wilkins a rare chance to hear his own ensemble from the audience. He hadn't heard Roman play before then, Wilkins told Friday's audience. But “I was locked in on the young man” during the Lalo concerto “because he was clearly from another planet.”
Later, Wilkins said, he was intrigued by the Gulda concerto after hearing a recording of it on Omaha classical radio station KVNO-FM. When he learned that it was in Roman's repertoire, he resolved to invite him back to Omaha to play it.
Gulda, who died in 2000, was an accomplished Austrian concert pianist who branched out into jazz (on both piano and saxophone) as well as composition. The Cello Concerto's five movements feature a diverse sampling of music Gulda could have heard in late 20th-century Austria, from an opening 12-bar jazz-rock blues to traditional brass choirs to an energetic closing circus march.
Roman didn't disappoint. His solo in the opening blues crisply evoked an elaborate alto sax improvisation. In the middle movement, an unaccompanied solo cadenza, Roman put on a clinic of cello techniques and coaxed the full range of sound capabilities from his instrument.
Roman was ably backed by drummers Robert Burrows and Ken Yoshida, string bassists Will Clifton and Dani Meier and a dozen wind players (six woodwinds and six brass). After Roman carried off the exuberant passagework in the closing march, the audience leapt to its feet in delight.
After the break, concertgoers experienced an earlier Austria in Beethoven's celebration of Alpine country life. The “Pastorale” can be considered an early example of the “program music” that emerged in the Romantic period, though Beethoven wrote that he meant to evoke feelings rather than explicit scenes.
One nonetheless can associate mountain meadows and babbling brooks with the Sixth Symphony's five movements. The second, which Beethoven subtitled “Scene by the Brook,” also features three woodwinds associated by the composer with a nightingale, a quail and a cuckoo. Symphony principals Maria Harding (flute), Alexandra Rock (oboe) and Carmelo Galante (clarinet) supplied the respective sounds with joyous charm.
The final three movements begin with a rural folk dance, segue to a threatening thunderstorm and conclude with a heartfelt “Shepherd's Song.” Strings, winds and percussion carried out Beethoven's intentions to the utmost, wrapping up a program celebrating music's ability to capture the human experience.