Li and Morlot bring serendipitous magic to Utah Symphony program

Sat Sep 25, 2021 at 10:43 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
George Li performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Friday night with the Utah Symphony. Photo: Simon Fowler

A few bumps are inevitable on the Utah Symphony’s road back to normalcy. At last week’s opening program, illness led to two changes of conductors and a programming adjustment.

This week, Ludovic Morlot was on the podium replacing Thierry Fischer due to the music director’s recent hospitalization. Also George Li was the substitute pianist in place of Andrei Korobeinikov, who was sidelined by a pandemic-related visa delay.

Though it was wholly unplanned, the partnership proved serendipitous and both guests shone in an evening tied together by themes of magic and the supernatural.

Li is an American pianist on the rise. At 26, he is a former Avery Fisher Career Grant winner and Tchaikovsky Competition medalist (and was runner-up in the Salt Lake City-based Gina Bachauer competition for junior artists back in 2008). 

In Friday night’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, he balanced power and grace to stunning effect. Li’s scintillating technique captivated the audience from the bristling opening bars to the perfectly placed final note. Along the way, the usual highlights, such as the solemn intonation of the “Dies irae” and the unabashed lyricism of the 18th variation, came off sounding both fresh and witty.

Under Morlot’s leadership, the Utah Symphony provided a dynamic accompaniment that never upstaged the soloist. The musical arc in the beloved 18th variation was particularly well-shaped.

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Utah Symphony Friday night.

Morlot, the French conductor best-known for his eight-year tenure at the Seattle Symphony, had his scheduled Utah Symphony debut scuttled by the pandemic last season, so his appearance this weekend is a happy accident. 

He opened the evening with Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss, presenting the complete 45-minute ballet for only the second time in Utah Symphony history. Stravinsky wrote the ballet to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, weaving songs and piano pieces by the earlier composer into a supernatural fairy tale. He later claimed he couldn’t remember which bits were Tchaikovsky’s and which were his. 

Morlot’s lushly Romantic reading leaned strongly toward the Tchaikovsky side, with Stravinsky peeking through in a sinuous woodwind line here or a slightly cheeky brass ostinato there. The orchestra played the four-movement work without pause, moving seamlessly from one scene to the next.

The change in soloists necessitated the replacement of Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations with Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Once again, Morlot and the orchestra took one of the best-known pieces in the repertoire and made it sparkle, never sacrificing clarity even when the orchestration was at its most rollicking.

The program will be repeated 5:30 p.m. Saturday.; 801-355-2787. 

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