Strings to the fore with Zukerman leading Utah Symphony

Fri Nov 20, 2020 at 11:12 am
By Rick Mortensen
Pinchas Zukerman performed Bach’s Violin Concerto in A major with the Utah Symphony Thursday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The efforts of performing arts organizations, which have been forced to find ways to create beauty under the extreme constraints of the pandemic, have been met with awe and profound gratitude – both for the resourcefulness of the performances themselves as well as the pains they have taken to ensure the safety of all involved.   

However, as the masked audience members found their socially-distanced seats for Thursday night’s Utah Symphony performance – featuring Pinchas Zukerman as both violinist and conductor – the mood was more akin to war-weary refugees waiting for UN rations. With the pandemic currently surging in Salt Lake City—-and many other places across the country— Abravanel Hall was mostly empty.  Bereft of live-concert energy with so few bodies to absorb the sound, the pre-concert tuning of the roughly 30 string players spread across the large stage sounded unusually stark and dissonant.

Fortunately, Zukerman and the pared-down orchestra delivered a concert well worth enduring the masking up, social isolation and other strains of the pandemic. Thursday’s concert marked Zukerman’s eighth appearance with the Utah Symphony since his 1985 debut as a viola soloist. 

The program began with Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst. An ebullient, accessible piece written in 2012 for small string ensemble, Starburst suggests Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring meets John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Zukerman took the work at a slow tempo, though he paid close attention to the strings’ phrasing and articulation. This allowed the piece to breathe and fill the hall with a cinematic swell. Montgomery, an African-American composer in her 30s, will likely be a unique voice in future concert music. 

Zukerman and the orchestra delivered Sir Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings with flawless intonation, a gorgeous tone, and sensitive phrasing that supported the piece’s overall architecture. It’s rare to see an ensemble so in sync with one another; the slurs, staccatos, legatos and cut-offs were as clear and pronounced as if a single musician were playing. The wit and relaxed playfulness of the first and third movements contrasted beautifully with the longing sentimentality of the slow movement, creating an emotionally complete experience.

The strings were a bit less cohesive in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, in which Zukerman doubled as conductor and soloist. At times in the third movement, the orchestra appeared to rely on the harpsichord to keep them together as Zukerman played facing the audience. However, the Andante was exquisite, with Zukerman’s beautiful tone rising above the orchestra’s hypnotic accompaniment.

The slow movement was also the high point of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, which featured the addition of two French horns and two oboes, all of whom sat along the back wall. Again, Zukerman took the first movement slower than it is usually played, and it lacked the fire and exuberance usually associated with the piece. However, the orchestra appeared to find its footing in Zukerman’s lucid interpretation of the second movement, with beautifully phrased melodic lines and a lovely clear sound. While the audience members may have begun the concert weary of Covid constraints, they likely left refreshed, with Zukerman’s virtuosity and star power garnering a standing ovation. 

The Utah Symphony will repeat the program 7:30 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Seating is limited and strict health protocols must be observed.; 801-533-6683. 

A Salt Lake City native, Rick Mortensen wrote classical music reviews for the Deseret News, San Diego Union Tribune and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group. After earning a Juris Doctorate review from Drake University Law School, he moved back to Salt Lake City where he has practiced law since 2006.  

2 Responses to “Strings to the fore with Zukerman leading Utah Symphony”

  1. Posted Nov 25, 2020 at 11:05 pm by Kari Landro

    One of the most enjoyable evenings we’ve experienced. The guest conductor was brilliant. His violin numbers with the orchestra were so wonderful. I feel bad for the many who missed this magnificent performance. Bravo to the Utah Symphony orchestra members. We are lucky to have them all!

  2. Posted Nov 30, 2020 at 12:08 pm by Barbara H Hartman

    The concert was VERY nice. I miss not seeing some “regulars” in the orchestra, however. Have they moved on? (string bass lead, viola lead are 2 examples).

    If the conductor speaks, he/she MUST use microphone!! I have NO idea what is being said, just that there is some “noise” up there. Please keep in mind when we can gather again.

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