Conductor Ludovic Morlot displayed consummate talent, musicality and versatility at the helm of the Utah Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Abravanel Hall.
Replacing music director Thierry Fischer, who canceled due to injury this week, Morlot acquitted himself brilliantly in the difficult and eclectic program that Fischer had planned.
The program included Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian pianist Andrei Korobeinikov, making his North American debut. Morlot, who is currently director of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, made his Utah Symphony beginning last season, also replacing when Fischer was out with Covid.
The Tchaikovsky was the only piece in the program that could be called “standard repertoire”. The program also included Augusta Read Thomas’s Dance bends and Symphony No. 2 by American iconoclastic composer Charles Ives.
The concert began with the charming Sinfonia from Antonio Salieri’s comic opera Prima la musica poi le parole (“First the Music, Then the Lyrics”), which tells the story of life behind the scenes of an opera house. Thanks to the play and the film Amedee, Salieri is known primarily as Mozart’s less talented rival, but he was a skilled and influential composer with a unique voice.
The Sinfonia has an infectious melody, an elegant structure and chromatic lines that prefigure Rossini. With clear, conscientious phrasing and crisp articulation, the performance was brimming with comedic energy while staying true to its innate classic style.
Pianist Korobeinikov came on stage dressed casually, with black pants and an untucked dark gray shirt. His portrayal of the Tchaikovsky was also flippant, in that it was stripped of the affectation and sentimentality that sometimes accompany this workhorse of war horses.
Instead, Korobeinikov concentrated on the thematic development of the piece, presenting each melodic idea clearly. Although his flawless technique gave him complete mastery of the dynamic range of the piano and he skillfully executed the cascading chords, series of octaves and ostinato passages of the first movement, his overall interpretation was a little dry.
It was in the second movement that Korobeinikov and the orchestra showed their musicality. Principal flute Mercedes Smith delivered the main theme with musicality and grace, and Korobeinikov enhanced his expression. He used very little damper, relying instead on articulation and phrasing to give color to the opening melody. In the scherzo-like middle section, the soloist was impressively light and he used a full palette of colors.
Although there were times when the orchestra and Korobeinikov were out of synch rhythmically, they were on the same page when it came to phrasing, dynamics and the overall structure of the piece. This was especially true in the third movement’s thrilling rise to the climax, which Korobeinikov ended with aplomb.
In encore, he played “August” by Tchaikovsky Seasons which showcased his ability to communicate sweet melody simply and subtly, without sentimentalizing.
Perhaps a little frightened by the more “modern” second half of the concert, a large part of the public left during the intermission.
They had little to fear. at Thomas dance bends, which premiered last year at the London Proms gigs, had an engaging rhythmic vitality; and though Ives’ later work can be quite dissonant, his Symphony No. 2 resembles Samuel Barber with some adventurous harmonic and contrapuntal flourishes. Thanks to Morlot, those who stayed were treated to an hour of top-notch musical creation and one of the highlights of the season so far.
In a brief speech introducing his piece, Thomas asked the audience to think of his piece as one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, with different parts swirling at different speeds and some of those parts including prisms. Indeed, movement – driven by pizzicato strings, congas and marimba – was the most salient feature of his piece.
Thomas’ voice is unique, but one way to describe Dance bends would be Pierre Boulez meets Prokofiev. The thematic material developed into loops that at first seemed mechanical but soon revealed themselves to be part of a grand expressive design, which the orchestra played with sensitivity, precision and vitality. After such a thrilling performance of a captivating contemporary work, the lukewarm response from the audience was disappointing.
They warmed further to Ives’ five-movement work, the spirit of which shines through in Morlot’s amorous interpretation. Foreshadowing the most dissonant juxtapositions of his later work, Ives’ Symphony No. 2 features thinly disguised American folk melodies, such as “America the Beautiful”, “Columbia Gem of the Ocean” and “Camp Town Races” in two-part melodies. in the classical European tradition of late Romanticism.
The orchestra achieved a rich, full, warm sound in the strings and an exquisite blend. In carving out the phrases, Morlot occasionally used only his stickless right hand, and the swells of the orchestra were imbued with appropriate desire. Cellist Silver Ainomae, auditioning as a finalist for principal cello, played a starring role with a gently phrased solo passage that turned into a cello duet in the elegiac third movement. He shone again in an expressive contrapuntal duet with Smith on flute in the fourth movement, which set the stage for the fiery finale.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. utahsymphony.org