Adkins’ Szymanowski provides the highlight in Utah Symphony’s New Year program

Sat Jan 05, 2019 at 12:12 pm
By Edward Reichel

Madeline Adkins performed Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Xian Zhang and the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The Utah Symphony’s first program of the new year offers something of a split personality. It can’t make up its mind if it’s a typical masterworks concert or a tribute to the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day celebration.

But despite that, the mixed bag of programming mostly succeeded Friday night at Abravanel Hall, thanks in large part to guest conductor Xian Zhang.

The highlight of the concert was Karol Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. Szymanowski certainly isn’t a household name for Utah Symphony audiences, and his First Violin Concerto from 1916 is a local rarity.

Why that’s the case is difficult to fathom, since it is a remarkable work that spotlights the Polish composer’s distinctive voice. While one hears influences of German romanticism, impressionism and a touch of expressionism, those elements are blended in a unique and individual way within an overall tonal framework. This is a compelling, poetic work that ought to be part of any violinist’s standard repertoire.

Concertmaster Madeline Adkins was the evening’s soloist, and she put her considerable musicianship and technical chops on display in Friday’s performance. The work opens with a long, flowing violin line over a busy orchestral accompaniment. Adkins’ seamless playing floated above the ensemble creating a billowy effect. From there, the music gradually becomes more intense and driven, and Adkins spread her wings, as it were, allowing herself to give full rein to her technical side and show the audience her considerable virtuosity.

The concerto, in one unbroken movement, moves deftly from tender lyricism to bold outbursts, and Adkins, supported by Zhang, moved effortlessly from one to the other. With her commanding stage presence she gave a robust account that captured the many subtleties of the solo violin writing. Szymanowski emphasizes the melodic aspect of the violin in this concerto and Adkins excelled in underscoring the fluid lyricism and soaring lines in her part. But she also dove into the challenges of the work with confidence, playing boldly and with conviction.

For the most part, Zhang was a fine collaborator. She allowed the orchestra to mirror Adkins’ expressive playing in the softer passages while maintaining a good balance between the soloist and the ensemble in the tutti sections. Occasionally, she let the orchestra overpower the violin line, but by and large it was a successful collaborative effort.

The concert opened with Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1, for brass and percussion. Zhang culled precise playing and crisp articulation from her forces that made this brief but vibrant piece pop.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case with the four numbers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, that followed. Zhang went for the obvious without trying to find any nuances in the music—the result was loud, overplayed performance wholly lacking charm and subtlety. Even the well-known waltz didn’t fare so well. Zhang’s tempo was too fast and made the dance feel rushed.

The “Panorama” fared somewhat better, flowing with strong lines and finely honed lyricism, and the “Adagio: Pas d’action” was dramatic and forceful. But all in all. This was unsatisfying and charmless Tchaikovsky performance.

The second half was devoted to two Straussas, both Johann, Jr. and Richard.

In the Overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta The Gypsy Baron, Zhang’s direction and fine sense of rubato gave the music a delightful lilt that underscored the dance element of the music. The performance was light, airy and filled with the carefree spirit so characteristic of this Strauss’ music. In the polka Bitte schön! principal oboe James Hall played his extended solo with enticing lyricism. Zhnag was more at ease in this leisurely paced polka, and her well-chosen tempi well captured the lighthearted character of the piece.

Rounding out the program was a suite from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. From the exuberant introduction with its domineering horns to the tender simplicity of the closing duet, Zhang captured the lushness, lyricism and captivating waltz rhythms of the music with her well-crafted reading that had more of the nuances sorely lacking in the Tchaikovsky ballet excerpts. Baron Ochs’ waltz was played with exuberant abandon. The opera’s gorgeous final trio, one of Strauss’ finest vocal inspirations, captured the music’s nostalgia and bittersweet emotions in Zhang’s sensitive reading.

As an encore, the orchestra gave a rousing account of Johann, Jr.’s Thunder and Lightning polka, but not before the entire orchestra, a la the Vienna Philharmonic,  wished everyone in the audience a “Happy New Year!”

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall.; 801-355-2787.

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