Utah Symphony returns live with short but sweet Mahler, Strauss program

Fri Mar 26, 2021 at 10:31 am
By Rick Mortensen
Making his Utah Symphony debut, Marc Albrecht conducted the orchestra in music of Mahler and Richard Strauss Thursday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

 In the Utah Symphony’s first live concert since last November, the orchestra reminded a sparse but appreciative audience of its artistic prowess and the individual genius of late Romantic composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Thursday night’s concert at Abravanel Hall also whetted the appetite for the Utah Symphony’s ambitious 2021-2022 season (advertised in a projected video between the evening’s two works).

The concert marked the local debut of Marc Albrecht, a German conductor known for his recordings of Mahler and Strauss with orchestras in Germany and the Netherlands. As with previous events this pandemic season, the conductor, orchestra musicians and audience were distanced and masked, except for the brass and woodwinds. 

As before, the program was just one hour in length and presented without an intermission. To accommodate the social-distancing requirements for the forces, an extra 14 feet was added to the depth of the stage, spreading out to the (covered) first two rows.

The distance between the musicians served both pieces on the program well, allowing the audience to hear the counterpoint and orchestral layers with greater clarity. 

That spacing also seemed to add intimacy and refinement to the first piece, the otherworldly Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.  Albrecht gave the famous slow movement a distinctive interpretation, beginning deliberately and somewhat tentatively, like a newborn foal trying out its legs. With the initial bursts of passion coming from the cellos, the energy spread and swelled through the orchestra until reaching its climax with the sweetness and sadness typical of Mahler’s string writing. Each melodic line was focused and infused with presence, and Albrecht’s unique take on the movement’s phrasing brought out its lyricism as well as emotion.

“Wit” was the operative word in Albrecht’s interpretation of Strauss’s Der Burger aus Edelmann Suite. Much of the music from this nine-movement suite was created as part of Strauss’s original (and later revised) concept for the opera Ariadne auf Naxos, which had included Moliere’s comedy Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme.

With programmatic movements titled “The Fencing Master” and the “The Entrance of Cleonte (after Lully)” interspersed with dance movements simply titled “Minuet” and “Courant,” the suite ranges in mood from high comedy to solemnity, but all sections are imbued with a charm and elegance reminiscent of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and other nostalgic works.

Albrecht infused the Overture with an energy reminiscent of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works, providing the phrasing and articulation with a Mozartian flourish, which gave the crunchier harmonies a zany energy. This led naturally into the light and airy “Minuet,” which featured lovely lilting passages in the flutes. 

“The Fencing Master” veered into broad comedy, with the French horns and trumpets putting across a burlesque sound that was as much Johann than Richard Strauss. The busy contrapuntal rhythms got away from Albrecht and the orchestra in the “The Entrance and Dance of the Tailors,” when the low and high strings were briefly out of sync. They recovered quickly and the next two movements—the warm “Minuet of Lully” and the soaring “Courant”—were exquisite. Both showcased Strauss’s ability to give baroque and classical forms an early 20th century sensibility.

The same went for the stately “Entrance of Celonte (after Lully),” which Albrecht began like a Bach chorale in the low strings and gave the contrasting dance-like passages a gentle lilt. The delightful “Prelude to Act II” and the martial finale “The Dinner” were most like the Strauss of Rosenkavalier, and Albrecht showed his command of the orchestra and mastery of Strauss’s varied moods. Even without knowing the plot of Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme, the audience left with the impression of having experienced an unfolding drama from start to finish.     

The Utah Symphony will repeat the program 7:30 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Seating is limited and strict health protocols must be observed. utahsymphony.org; 801-533-6683.

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