Start at Arizona's border with Mexico. Travel south, musically speaking, in one night to Brazil and Argentina. Zip back the next night to New England, stop in New York and wind up near your starting point — specifically, the Grand Canyon.
Such was the Omaha Symphony's second annual festival — a whirlwind two-day “Festival of the Americas” that, by and large, was well-executed and well worth the trouble.
It took “a lot of notes,” as Music Director Thomas Wilkins said, to guide the Holland Performing Arts Center's Friday and Saturday audiences along such a diverse path. Before beginning the final leg — Ferde Grofé's popular “Grand Canyon Suite” — he noted that the symphony had rehearsed most of the week to polish a program twice as large as usual.
The 2014 festival was more ambitious in many ways than last year's outstanding debut festival, which featured the music of Czech Romantic composer Antonín Dvorák. But the symphony's musicians again displayed the enviable virtuosity and intense musicality that they bring to the most difficult of challenges.
All but one of the weekend's works came from the mid-1900s, when folk songs from many nations were being systematically written down, recorded and used as inspiration for new works. The folk influence was especially strong throughout Friday night's opening program, which focused on music originating from or evoking Latin America.
Friday's intermission served as a virtual equator dividing the folk and European influences upon the program's composers. The iconic musical stylings of Central America's Spanish conquerors dominated the three opening-act choices: Aaron Copland's “El Salón México,” the “Sinfonia India” Symphony of Carlos Chávez and Spaniard Joaquín Rodrigo's “Concierto de Aranjuez.”
The second act's two South American works, however, seemed more affected by mid-20th-century neoclassical and atonal trends than by their folk sources. Relentless rhythms and a wandering tonal center dominated Argentinian Alberto Ginastera's “Four Dances from Estancia” and showed up to a lesser extent in the “Martelo” dance movement in “Bachianas brasileiras No. 5,” written by Brazilian Hector Villa-Lobos.
Guest guitarist Oren Fader brought out his instrument's capacity for excitement and shimmering brilliance throughout “Aranjuez” (which later was featured in a 1970s Ford car commercial and jazzed up by trumpeters Miles Davis and Herb Alpert).
The weekend's most captivating performer unquestionably was operatic soprano Alyson Cambridge, who vocalized Villa-Lobos' opening aria Friday and returned Saturday to present the weekend's newest work, the six-song cycle “Honey and Rue,” written in 1991 by composer André Previn and Nobel Prize-winning poet Toni Morrison.
If Cambridge's impeccable vibrato weren't enough to command the audience's attention, her deeply expressive face and animated gestures would more than suffice. But in “Honey and Rue,” part of the second night's program of north-of-the-border music, her formidable vocal arsenal worked against her — or, more to the point, worked against the audience.
It's likely that many members of the audience lacked previous exposure to Morrison's lyrics, which were not printed in the symphony program and aren't easily accessible online. As impressive as Cambridge was, the typical operatic style is prone to sacrifice diction and clarity in favor of vibrato and other vocal pyrotechnics. Under those conditions, what chance does an audience have to fully perceive and appreciate the message of an unfamiliar song, let alone an entire song cycle?
That said, the symphony's musical clarity was unquestioned both nights. Saturday night's program provided repeated thrills as Wilkins led the ensemble through William Schuman's “New England Triptych,” Leonard Bernstein's trio of dance variations from his 1944 ballet “Fancy Free” and Grofé's “Grand Canyon Suite,” with its famous middle movement depicting a lively burro descending the steep trail to the canyon floor.