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Symphony finale evokes life disrupted by wars
By Todd von Kampen

The musical experience in store for tonight's final 2011-12 Omaha Symphony concert is better expressed by the program's subtitle — “The Musical Soul of Hungary” — than by its title duplicating the featured work, Béla Bartók's seminal Concerto for Orchestra.

Concertgoers at Friday's opening learned of their orchestra's fondness for the work, written in 1943 and premiered a year later as Bartók lived in exile in the United States. Quoting symphony violinist Tracy Dunn, Music Director Thomas Wilkins said hearing the Concerto for Orchestra “marks time for all” musicians in their performing careers.

The ensemble then brought its passion to bear on the concerto's five movements, in which Bartók seems both to illustrate Europe's destruction in two world wars and express hope for a better future. Its performance impressively capped the Hungarian works surrounding Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in F major, a surprisingly lighthearted offering from the great master.

Wilkins and the symphony began the evening with a bright and bouncy rendition of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody in F minor, written nearly a century before Bartók's work.

Bartók, who was 5 when Liszt died in 1886, shared two qualities with him: virtuosity as a pianist and an abiding interest in preserving Hungarian folk music. Though Bartók imbibed to some degree in the early 20th century's atonal experiments, his compositions remained grounded in the thousands of Maygar melodies he collected. (By contrast, Liszt's musicology focused on the songs of Hungary's Roma, or gypsies.)

Both tendencies can be heard with powerful effect in the Concerto for Orchestra, which Bartók began writing three years after he and his wife fled a Nazi-sympathetic Hungary.

Wilkins and the symphony deftly and movingly communicate Bartók's despondency and his frustration over a long dry spell in his composing (ended by the concerto's completion and acclaimed Boston premiere).

In the first and third movements, the cellos and basses somberly intone a funereal melody while the winds and upper strings suggest once-ordinary European scenes — dances, countrysides, churches — and their disruption by the frantic, relentless machines of war.

The symphony's first and second chairs in the trumpet and woodwind sections (except for bassoonists James Compton and Matt Lano) give the second movement's “Presentation of the Couples” a feel neither totally ominous nor entirely cheerful.

The fourth hints at a lifting of the gloom, while the ensemble's energetic presentation of the finale seems to predict the Allied armies' triumphant liberation of the continent.

Wilkins said the weekend's program, the last in the season's MasterWorks series, represents a gift to Omahans for their enthusiastic support.

Many of them no doubt will miss hearing their orchestra, which returns to the Holland Performing Arts Center stage Sept. 21.

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