Utah Symphony premiere proves bombastic but Ehnes scores with Bruch

Sat May 18, 2019 at 11:48 am
By Edward Reichel

James Ehnes performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor with the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Except for Max Bruch’s omnipresent Violin Concerto in G minor, Friday night’s’s Utah Symphony concert at Abravanel Hall celebrated a part of American history.

In addition to two works by Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring and the suite from the ballet Billy the Kid, the program also features the Utah debut of Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian’s Transcend, written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

The work was commissioned by the Utah Symphony along with twelve other orchestras in cities along the train route. It was recently premiered by the Reno Philharmonic, and the Utah Symphony performance is its second.

Intended to honor the thousands of Chinese workers who laid the track, Transcend was preceded by a brief video talking about the contributions of the Chinese rail workers.

There are some admirable moments but overall the three-movement work doesn’t live up to expectations. The music is mostly glib and glossy, slim on thematic material and weak in structure. The extensive use of percussion in the outer movements makes it bombastic rather than complementing or adding to the musical fabric.

The third movement is cleverly based on the Morse code for the word “done,” the word which was telegraphed after the last track had been laid. This thematic/rhythmic motive moves through the orchestra but gets lost in the composer’s excessive use of percussion. Zhou could have done much more with it in a more subtle, perhaps fugal, treatment that would have given the movement a more profound and meaningful impact.

The most successful part of Transcend is its middle movement, because it offers some welcome repose in its lush string writing that counterbalances the noisy overkill  of the other two movements.

Conductor Thierry Fischer had a solid command of the score and coaxed dynamic and vibrant playing from his ensemble at Friday’s concert, with the percussionists being in top form. The performance was well aexpressed, and he brought a cohesion to the work even in its most rhythmically and metrically challenging parts.

The true highlight of the evening was guest soloist James Ehnes playing the popular Bruch Violin Concerto.

Returning to the Abravanel Hall stage after many years’ absence, Ehnes is a remarkable musician who plays with feeling and depth of expression that is matched by his virtuosity. And he had the opportunity of displaying both in this work since the first two movements are more lyrical with flowing melodies rather than technical. 

His reading of these two movements were emotionally charged and filled with subtly inflected eloquence. This was brought out in the middle movement, which is a glorious sequence of appealing melody that Ehnes played with infinite sensitivity, mirrored by Fischer’s thoughtful accompaniment.

The soloist’s technical skills come to the fore in the vigorous finale, and Ehnes didn’t disappoint. He captured the bold gestures and relentless energy of the music with a wonderful virtuosity that was forceful yet never overshadowed the score’s underlying lyricism.

Ehnes responded to the audience’s boisterous applause with an encore of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3, one of six sonatas for solo violin the Belgian composer and violinist wrote in 1923. An extremely technically demanding work, Ehnes played it with stunning virtuosity that also captured the lyrical element embedded within the bravura writing.

Thierry Fischer conducted the Utah Symphony Friday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The evening began with a compelling reading of Appalachian Spring. The ballet was originally scored for just 13 instruments, and is most effective in that form. 

But Fischer was able to capture the intimacy of the music with his perceptive direction, at times making the full orchestra sound like a chamber ensemble.

With tempos that were spot on, Fischer and the players  captured the shifting moods of the score with sensitivity. The conductor elicited finely crafted, lyrical playing from his orchestra that was nuanced in expression and dynamics.

The concert ended with Copland’s Billy the Kid. Fischer’s powerful reading underscored the robust, gregarious character of the music and captured the spirit of the Wild West that the composer so artfully created. 

Fischer’s account was lusty and uninhibited in the lively sections (“Running Gun Battle” and “Celebration on Billy’s Capture”) yet  wonderfully tender and poignant in “Billy’s Death.”

Fischer drew orchestral playing of bold lines that captured the sweeping nature and rhythmic vitality of the music, while also bringing finely honed lyricism and expressiveness to the framing sections of “The Open Prairie.”

The program will be repeated 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall. utahsymphony.org; 801-355-2787.

One Response to “Utah Symphony premiere proves bombastic but Ehnes scores with Bruch”

  1. Posted May 27, 2019 at 3:36 pm by Katharine English

    I couldn’t disagree more with this review of Tian’s work. The music was electrifying in the first and third movements, brilliantly demonstrating the construction of the railroad in the first, and the broadcasting of its completion in the third movements. What the reviewer calls bombastic was thrilling. The second movement succeeded in expressing the given and broken promises to the thousands who sacrificed their lands and lives to the project. Bravo, Zhou Tian!

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