Utah Symphony shows versatility in return to Carnegie Hall
The Utah Symphony made its first appearance at Carnegie Hall in four decades Friday night, with music director Thierry Fischer leading a program that spanned three centuries. Mitt Romney was among the packed and enthusiastic hometown audience in attendance.
The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D major, the so-called “Miracle” Symphony, one of the wonderful symphonies the composer wrote late in his life while staying in London. The nickname isn’t a testimony of devotion but comes from a likely apocryphal tale about a giant chandelier falling during the 1791 premiere and injuring no one as the enthusiastic audience had crowded the stage.
The Utah strings dominated the textures throughout the evening. Thierry had all Utah Symphony players except the cellists stand, Classical style, for the duration of the piece. Perhaps it’s somehow true that – as with singers and bank tellers – musicians are better able to do their jobs when on their feet. The lines were clear and played with spirit in the opening movement and in the alternating dance and battle march of the Andante second movement. Perhaps that physical stamina contributed to the polite applause after every movement.
The orchestra, now seated, gave the New York premiere of the young American composer Andrew Norman’s Switch.
From the opening seconds, Norman’s fast-paced percussion concerto had the dramatic tension of a John Carpenter score, even before soloist Colin Currie sprinted onstage and leapt into place behind an expansive assemblage of toms, snares, cymbals, congas and a marimba.
The explosion of visual stimulus made it hard to listen until, after several minutes, a momentary break in the drumming allowed the ear to focus. A few minutes later, to the soft strains of solo piano, Currie moved briskly to the other side of the stage, where woodblocks, a bass drum, a vibraphone and nine gongs of various sizes were placed, later dashing between the two instrumental groups.
Like the physicality of Currie’s performance, the music worked in sudden turns, percussionist and orchestra playing quick passages in strictly synchronized rhythm, then switching into percussion concerto mode and then into denser juxtapositions. Those thicker, generally slower, passages, where Norman let the music sit a bit, were the most satisfying, like the opening of a door into a dark room rather than the car chase.
After the light and jaunty first half, a set of five selections from Prokofiev’s beloved ballet Romeo and Juliet hit like a wrecking ball. Conductor Fischer put special emphasis on the dark, tragic tones of the lower register, steering in broad strokes in “Montagues and Capulets.” The “Masked Ball” was a little brighter and the “Dance” brighter still, but with “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb” the blinding darkness returned, a bit airier but despondent nevertheless. The emotional import throughout seemed almost a transcription of Shakespeare’s play and the precision in their performance again made one wonder why rose the orchestra hadn’t played New York’s most famous hall for 40 years.
Closing the evening was more ballet music, with Bartok’s Suite From The Miraculous Mandarin, which very nearly exploded off the stage. The bold piece still finds its musical roots in folklore, yet this scenario is a grittier tale of urban lust and crime, The story, a woman held against her will and forced to lure men into the hands of her thieving captors, seems made for the movies even if Bartok’s setting dates from 1918, and Currie and company certainly didn’t shrink from the drama. They might not have given the subtlest of readings in their return to Carnegie Hall, but it made for an evening of excitement.