As the old saying goes, March enters like a lion and leaves like a lamb — or vice versa. On Friday night, the Omaha Symphony left no doubt.
It opened the month with the full force of "Soaring Strings," an aptly named MasterWorks performance at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Conducted by Music Director Thomas Wilkins, the concert featured Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh.
As the concert's name implies, the symphony's strings soared, bringing the audience through a romantic, oftentimes dramatic, performance.
Darry T. Kubian's "Occam's Razor," which debuted in 2009, served as the overture, opening the evening with a clarion call of sorts. With a motif that extends throughout the composition and re-emerges forcefully at the end, it is a thoroughly rousing piece, somewhat reminiscent of a grand Western: magnificent, rich and spatially evocative. It felt, though, just a bit out of place with the rest of the selections, all written during the 19th century.
This was followed by Puccini's "Preludio Sinfonico" in A Major, which the composer wrote during his early 20s as he was finishing his exams at the Milan Conservatory. The piece is by turns wistful, dramatic and gentle.
It worked to establish a dreamlike mood, leading beautifully into Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48. The progression of this composition is stirring, moving from a slow introduction to a lively waltz, the tempo gradually increasing until the resplendent finale.
But it was Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, a work in three movements (quick-slow-quick), that owned the night. It is one of the violin's most definitive — and challenging — compositions. It was notably the composer's only violin concerto, and it requires intense focus and discipline. Koh had both in spades.
Recognized for her intense, tightly controlled and highly emotive approach, the violinist plays with a distinctive physicality, closing her eyes and throwing her entire body — and mind — into her performance. Koh doesn't just play the violin; she subdues it and makes it do what she wants. She commands her violin — as she does the rapt attention of her audience.
Indeed, it's bliss to watch Koh as she feels, teases and pulls each note from her violin. She converses with it and produces an expressive, impassioned narrative, one striking for an interpretive impetuosity tempered by technical precision.
By the end of the performance it was clear: Koh and the symphony made the strings soar. They created an evening memorable for creating a concert that truly lives up to the name of the MasterWorks series.