From Bach to Wagner, Fischer leads a bounteous Utah Symphony program

Fri Apr 30, 2021 at 11:56 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Madeline Adkins and Claude Halter perform Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with Thierry Fischer conducting the Utah Symphony Thursday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The Utah Symphony, like many American orchestras, has been pondering the puzzle of updating the concert experience for years. Now, thanks to the global pandemic, the orchestra has had a chance to test out some of those ideas: shorter programs, a slightly relaxed dress code, more modern or nontraditional repertoire, and the dismantling of the familiar overture-concerto-symphony formula.

This weekend’s concerts, led by music director Thierry Fischer, featured works of J.S. Bach, Elliott Carter, Wynton Marsalis and Richard Wagner, and offered another strong example of the orchestra’s resilience and reinvention during this challenging era..

Concertmaster Madeline Adkins, fresh off last week’s magnificent performance in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, was the evening’s soloist again Thursday night, with featured turns in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Wynton Marsalis’s A Fiddler’s Tale. Principal second violin Claude Halter was her dialogue partner in the Bach Double. 

The two were beautifully matched in virtuosity, infusing the concerto’s outer movements with exhilarating playfulness and the middle movement with stylish grace. Fischer ensured seamless balance from the rest of the ensemble.

Next came Carter’s Double Trio for violin, percussion, trombone, cello, trumpet and piano. Written in 2011, when the composer was nearly 103, it’s one of Carter’s more approachable works and packs an impressive array of instrumental effects into  eight minutes. Especially effective was the interplay between violin and trombone. It’s doubtful that Utah Symphony audiences would have had the chance to hear this small gem in pre-pandemic times.

Composed by Wynton Marsalis in 1998, A Fiddler’s Tale is scored for violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion—the same story and instrumentation Stravinsky employed in L’histoire du soldat (A Soldier’s Tale). As in L’histoire, Marsalis brings together a salad of styles: Dixieland jazz, blues, swing, tango, ragtime. The Utah Symphony performed the piece without a narrator, but it seems unlikely that anyone familiar with the original or any tale of soul-selling, needed it to grasp the gist of this story of a brilliant violinist selling out to a record executive named B.Z.B.

The eclectic work offered plenty of room for Adkins to show off her versatility as the violin sauntered, swaggered and strutted through the score. It also featured the occasional Stravinskian riff, mostly coming from the acerbic clarinet of Tad Calcara. Another highlight was the brief jam from the brass players and rhythm section that concluded the piece. Marsalis’ suite might not be as successful as Stravinsky’s in synthesizing its mixture of styles, but it is undeniably a lot of fun.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, history’s most famous musical birthday present, closed the evening. The 30-plus-member string section, with a small complement of winds and brass at the back of the stage, sounded positively extravagant in this season of scaled-back forces, but Fischer and the orchestra crafted a performance of tender intimacy.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall;; 801-533-6683.

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