The mysterious contrasts of Russia and its music — sometimes bright, often brooding, usually brash, always big — made for a truly compelling fourth annual Omaha Symphony winter festival.
Strong crowds greeted Music Director Thomas Wilkins, his finely honed ensemble and their intriguing guest soloists on both Friday and Saturday nights, reiterating Omahans’ enthusiasm for the showcase weekend of the annual MasterWorks series.
Those who came both nights to the Holland Performing Arts Center enjoyed a 126-year retrospective of Russian symphonic music, starting Friday with Elena Roussanova’s “Festival Celebration Music in a Russian Style” (2000) and ending with Modest Mussorgsky’s iconic “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874).
The two-part program illustrated how thoroughly composers of the “Russian school,” such as Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (represented in Friday night’s “Overture to ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ ”), captured their nation’s soul.
They embellished Slavic melodies with a full arsenal of instruments, dynamics and musical colors. They loved deep, thrilling orchestrations evoking beauty and horror, ecstasy and despair. Their examples left lasting marks on such later composers as Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Ballet Suite No. 1 led off Saturday’s program.
The program also lingered among composers who fled from the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the symphony and guest pianist Gleb Ivanov memorably illustrated in Friday night’s first-act finale.
For that slot, Wilkins chose the full version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” written in 1934 during the composer’s permanent U.S. exile. The 18th of its 24 variations played a prominent role in the 1980 Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour fantasy “Somewhere in Time,” as well as in Bill Murray’s 1993 comedic classic “Groundhog Day.”
Ivanov’s execution was breathtaking. His fingers majestically intoned the big chords and rippled across the keyboard, generating sound like breaking waves. When they reached the 18th variation, Ivanov and the orchestra painted a breathtakingly lovely aural scene.
At the piece’s end, the audience flooded Ivanov with waves of ovations and cheers, which he rewarded with Alexander Siloti’s haunting arrangement of Prelude No. 10 from the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
Later, they were left in contemplative awe by the last of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the “Pathétique.” This transcendent work also was the last in the celebrated but tragically unhappy life of Tchaikovsky, who died nine days after conducting its 1893 premiere.
It broods at its beginning, lashing out with romantic passion and violent despair, but then seems to settle into a typical symphonic structure. The symphony executed the triumphant third movement with such strength that concertgoers were bound to applaud as though the concert was over. So they did — but Tchiakovsky’s personal musical eulogy remained.
The final movement sorrowfully takes listeners to a cemetery, then descends into the freshly dug grave. The symphony brought the first night’s program to an end by quietly fading into a somber silence.
Caroline Goulding, a young but busy violinist, drew top billing Saturday night in presenting the Violin Concerto in A Minor, written in 1904 by Rimsky-Korsakov student Alexander Glazunov. In her mid-20s, she impressed the crowd with her technical command of the work. But the sounds from her violin strangely lacked the depth so familiar in solo and ensemble violin performances at the Holland.
“Pictures at an Exhibition,” one of the prime examples of Romantic “program music,” brought the Russian festival to an appropriately exuberant end. It employs every expressive characteristic of the style Mussorgsky helped make Russia’s own — even though it was the accomplished French composer Maurice Ravel who famously arranged Mussorgsky’s solo piano work for orchestra in 1922.