Why look up to see the stars? At the Holland Center on Friday night, the Omaha Symphony let audiences simply close their eyes and enjoy Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Andrew Grams returned to conduct. He was buoyant with energy as he led the orchestra through a mostly thrilling program.
The first piece of the concert was Motet No. 2 by Johann Sebastian Bach. Motets are typically choral compositions, but Friday the Omaha Symphony presented an orchestral adaptation of the piece. In its original form, the title of the motet translates in English to, “The Spirit gives aid to our weakness.” Lively and hopeful, the instrumental presentation of this motet was uplifting, befitting the promise of its name. Following the motet, the Abendmusik chorus performed a Bach chorale with a similar theme, “Es ist genug” or “It is enough.” The ensemble sang beautifully and added charming variety to the set.
The first half of the program concluded with the Alban Berg Violin Concerto. The orchestra was triumphant in its presentation of this melodic and rhythmic odyssey.
Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore gave a fantastic and earnest performance as the concerto’s soloist. Her connection to the orchestra throughout such unique and complex material was admirable.
As a piece, Berg’s concerto was predictably interesting and terrifying. Grams even joked to the classical music enthusiasts in the audience before it began, asking people to applaud if they “didn’t enjoy Alban Berg’s music...” — and applaud they did. While the architecture, tonal innovation and soundscape created in the piece are entrancing at first, they eventually become more perplexing than they are expressive.
The odd and experimental journey away from conventional harmonies, like those of Bach and Holst, indeed does evoke dark and complex notions from the far corners of the human condition.
In one sense that exploration is appropriate. The piece was ultimately completed in part as a memoriam for the daughter of Berg’s friend, Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. Like Berg’s music, a timed calculus test on a blind date at the Holland might evoke the same dark and complex emotions. But I imagine the Symphony wouldn’t sell many tickets to that without Holst or Bach on the program.
The concert concluded with “The Planets,” a collection of brief tone poems and certainly the most famous of Holst’s works.
The opening movement, “Mars,” was the likely musical inspiration for some of the thematic material in many a sci-fi epic’s score, including the “Star Wars” films and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” Grams even made a John Williams joke in advance of the piece to prepare the audience for some of the familiar nuance. The “Jupiter” movement has been re-imagined as a hymn tune and appears as such all over English-speaking culture in churches and soundtracks.
Each movement demonstrates the character and nature of the astrological sign for which it is named. From the first downbeat, the performance was absolutely marvelous. The themes may have been intended by Holst as homages to astrological characters, but their scope and color are so vast that they easily take the imagination on a vivid journey of the solar system by happy accident.
Abendmusik’s treble voices sang again from offstage during the final movement, “Neptune.” The celestial sound of the sopranos and altos was a gorgeous addition to a mystical moment of the concert.
The concert was a great success. The audience immediately praised “The Planets” with a standing ovation. The Berg was challenging even if it was impressive. However, the Bach and the Holst were endearing and masterful.