Frontier can be a funny thing.
No matter how much artists and composers muse on the idea of the horizons ahead, consumers and listeners will always respond to the sentiment of an endeavor into the unknown and untouched.
At the Holland Center on Friday night the Omaha Symphony opened its 2019-20 MasterWorks Series with a concert full of music ruminating over the idea of adventure and the uncharted.
Music director Thomas Wilkins conducted. The evening opened with a performance of American composer David Dzubay’s “Ra.” “Ra” illustrated the power and grandeur of the Egyptian god of the sun.
The second title on the program has become associated with the old American West, but wasn’t originally intended to do so. Gioachino Rossini’s overture to the opera “William Tell” has been accidentally immortalized as the soundtrack to "The Lone Ranger" at its more adventurous passages. In its more delicate moments, it has appeared with cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Archer enjoying a little respite from their capers.
In reality “William Tell” told the story of Swiss comrades suffering from a tyrannical regime. The American association of its music with the Wild West links it even more appropriately with the lofty motif of the evening’s program.
The iconic and pastoral flute and English horn solos in the overture were masterfully presented by Maria Harding and Christine Sallas. The cello chorale at the beginning of the overture is certainly less famous than the striding passage that accompanies the Lone Ranger’s ride, but it was performed magnificently, led by principal cellist Paul Ledwon’s solo.
While the first two pieces on the program orbited around the themes of adventure, endeavor and the profound, the third item on the program, an Omaha premiere, set its sights blatantly on pioneering and progress. The piece was titled “Transcend” and was commissioned of composer Zhou Tian to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion. Percussion gestures indicated dynamite reshaping the challenging terrain. Horns and winds added the effect of trains echoing across the unsettled land as a harbinger of civilization.
The second movement, “Promise,” was a tribute to the immigrants and laborers who, in a quest for a better life, actually built the railroad.
The third movement, “D-O-N-E,” in a stroke of genius, used the Morse code for the word “done” to compose a rhythmic motive that would unify the rest of the composition. When the railroad was completed a telegraph message was simultaneously wired to papers across the country with that single word. The motive was passed around and reorganized amidst the strings, winds and even a xylophone growing more and more energized and exhilarated.
The audience approved of the premiere with a standing ovation. It was touching that the piece, while inspired by distant industrial and exploitative victories, had ties to Omaha’s backyard. The Transcontinental Railroad connected to Omaha. The company that built it, Pacific Railroad, would evolve into the Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad. It’s a treat when classical music has a subject matter with only a few degrees of separation from the Holland Center itself.
The second act was comprised entirely of Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Twice in one night Omaha was sidled up to the origin of a great piece of classical music. Dvorák was inspired to write “New World,” in part by time he spent with Czech emigrants in Iowa. The work was invigorating and inspired a second standing ovation.