After drawing a near-full crowd for its final concert — Steven Osborne playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto — the Utah Symphony Orchestra returned to a less than half-full Abravanel Hall on Friday for a concerto-less schedule of Smetana, Messiaen and Sibelius. Still, the musicians didn’t seem to care about empty seats and they gave a gem of a concert.
Opening with Bedřich Smetana’s melodious symphonic poem, “La Moldau,” the concert showcased the orchestra’s musicality and full, transparent sound under the direction of Music Director Thierry Fischer. “The Moldau” is the most popular movement of Smetana’s Czech-themed orchestral suite, My Vlast (“My country”). It begins with a nimble flute solo in triplets punctuated by pizzicato strings, followed by a brief flute duet, before winding into the piece’s famous string melody. Associate Principal Flutist Lisa Byrnes played the solo line with charming rhythm and engaging phrasing. Fisher seamlessly transferred the Byrnes-built energy to the strings, which shimmered through the infectious main theme.
Fischer’s phrasing shaped the melody and gave it a sense of movement as it developed to the climax. The broad, cinematic sound of the main theme contrasted with a more subtle and witty development section, which Fischer led with pronounced jerky cuts and nimble passages. He reveled in the sound of the orchestra in the more atmospheric passages of the piece, before rushing into the more cadential recapitulation of the main theme, to which he gave a strong festive energy.
The contagious melodies of “La Moldau” contrast with the chromaticism of the following pieces on the program: “La Grive des bois” and “Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama”, the tenth and eleventh movements of the work in twelve movements by Olivier Messiaen From the Canyons to the Stars… (“From the Canyons to the Stars…”), which was inspired by the composer’s 1972 visit to southern Utah, with two movements named after Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. The Utah Symphony Orchestra will travel to Zion and perform the work in its entirety at an outdoor concert on June 2 and present two more movements at the concert next weekend.
The relatively short selections – 5 and 9 minutes respectively – required the stage crew to rearrange the stage to accommodate a chamber orchestra around a piano. As the stage crew worked, advertisements for the orchestra’s upcoming season and next month’s Zion concert played on a screen that dropped from the ceiling.
“The Wood Thrush” is based on Messiaen’s transcription of the song of the American Wood Thrush. It begins with an arpeggiated chord in C major – a C to a G to an E then back to a C – played by flute and trumpet. This is followed by bar-length solos on wind machine, wood block and bells – with pauses in between – followed by chromatic bursts on xylophone, glockenspiel and piano. This series repeats several times with some variations, adding thick, dense chords in the winds, longer piano and xylophone bursts, and interpolations of the initial call in C major. The effect is mesmerizing and tends to sharpen the listener’s attention, much like listening intently to birdsong.
“Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama” – an amalgamation of four different birdsongs from the thrush family – takes a similar approach, using the same instruments, but the bird’s initial call is less consonant and the texture is busier. Of both tracks, the most impressive action was lead percussionist Keith Carrick on xylophone, associate lead percussionist and timpanist Eric Hopkins on Glockenspiel, and lead keyboardist Jason Hardink on piano, playing furious chromatic passages that mimicked the sometimes chaotic chirps that the birds make between the two. iterations of their identifiable calls.
Fischer’s lucid interpretation of the two movements gave space to the piece’s disparate elements. Yet while the Messiaen was impressive and interesting, it elicited only a lukewarm response from the audience, who warmed much more to the orchestra’s transcendent rendition of Symphony No. John Sibelius.
Fischer captured the optimism of Sibelius’ piece as well as its fatalism and made its disparate melodies cohesive into a grand musical vision. His Beethovenian rendition of the first movement was a tour de force for stings and brass, showing the ability of both sections to shape a musical phrase and create a beautiful, transparent sound.
With a rolling timpani that gave way to a marching pizzicato line in bass and cello, the second movement opened ringing an air of mysterious fatalism – then turned ravishing with the arrival of the upper strings. Fischer took his time, leaving room for the music to breathe and grow, and making the most of the movement’s grand statements. He was careful to illuminate his main contrasting moments, letting sunlight into the dark spaces of the movement in a display of his particular gift for string phrasing.
The emotional sweep of the piece’s third and fourth movements is rarely matched in classical repertoire, and Fischer has captured its full spectrum while paying particular attention to the magnificent sonorities of the composer’s cadenzas in the low winds and brass. The sonic transparency of the orchestra served the piece well, allowing the listener to enjoy the counterpoint and open up the 5ths and 6ths as the piece built to its climax, which did not disappoint. In the final restatement of the piece’s ending theme, the bass strings and brass delivered a deeply satisfying ending, which had the audience rising to a sustained ovation.
The program repeats at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21in the Abravanel room. usuo.org