Sergei Rachmaninoff in an interview once confessed “I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.”

By the end of his life, Rachmaninoff’s compositions were thrillingly in between two generations.

At the Holland Center on Friday night the Omaha Symphony demonstrated that what was frustrating to Rachmaninoff is fantastic to a modern symphony audience. In a presentation of Miklós Rózsa, Johannes Brahms and, of course, Rachmaninoff, a crowd of Omaha patrons were able to enjoy an imaginative fusion of music twisted between eras, genres and expectations.

Thomas Wilkins, music director, conducted the orchestra with an uncharacteristic calm. The typically cool and contemplative maestro was even more meditative in his direction of the evening’s unusual but colorful palate of sounds. As Wilkins moved with the orchestra, they almost seemed to be in communion with each other, ensemble and director creating a canvass where music from two centuries could paint itself.

The “Waltz from Madame Bovary” by Rózsa opened the first set. Film scores don’t often appear in the Omaha Symphony’s Masterworks Series, but this gem was a welcome surprise. The waltz was full of sweet textures and harmonies hearkening back to the romantic period, but it also had just enough 20th century sting and dissonance to stay exciting. The piece hailed from the 1948 film of its namesake.

The second piece on the program was Brahms’ “D Minor Concerto for Piano.” Markus Groh returned to Omaha for his second collaboration as a piano soloist.

The sweeping first movement was so vast and engaging that the audience mistakenly and almost unanimously believed it to be the entire piece. An accidental ovation tried to interrupt the flow from movement 1 to movement 2 as the orchestra forged ahead.

The second movement was stunning. Brahms envisioned two key inspirations in his composition. The first was his dear friend, and the wife of his mentor, Clara Schumann. The second was the “Benedictus” from the ordinaries of the Catholic Mass: “Blessed who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Both muses were audible throughout. Clara, a famous concert pianist, received an obvious nod. The concerto was written for piano, so the heroic piano lines climbing feverishly up and down the keys were certainly intended to impress or were at least inspired by her. Then the spoken rhythm of the Benedictus chant echoed over and over again in the various melodies presented in the piece’s flavorful development.

The final movement was a frenzy and tossed adrenaline-ridden material back and forth from the piano to the ensemble.

Groh was captivating. Almost like a swan on water, from the elbows up he seemed still, while his forearms and fingers twirled triumphantly across the white stream of keys. An occasional happy glance between Groh and Wilkins hinted at the heartfelt connection the dozens of artists on stage were experiencing as they played the remarkable score. A fast and warm standing ovation with three calls to applaud Groh ended the first set.

The Rachmaninoff “Symphonic Dances” did not slow the momentum of the night. Rachmaninoff’s blend of modern tension and romantic sensuality connected the evening’s superficially different repertoire with grace. The audience stood up to applaud the orchestra a final time.

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