Bergmann leads Utah Symphony in powerful Nielsen

Sat Nov 06, 2021 at 11:11 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Rune Bergmann led the Utah Symphony in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Danish composer Carl Nielsen “had a lot of frustrations” about the state of the world in 1916, Rune Bergmann told listeners upon taking the stage in Abravanel Hall Friday night. The Norwegian conductor reckoned the audience could relate, “coming out of a very difficult situation.”

Nielsen’s response was to celebrate the will to live in his Symphony No. 4, nicknamed “Inextinguishable,” and the Utah Symphony’s earnest performance under Bergmann’s direction provided a bit of catharsis for its 21st-century audience.

Bergmann, who eschews a podium because he’s about a head taller than most conductors, brought infectious enthusiasm to the job. The “Inextinguishable” opens with a mighty roar, and the orchestra leaned in with vigor before Bergmann gracefully tapered the sound.

Throughout the evening, the players responded attentively to the conductor’s precise baton and expressive left-hand technique. This symphony is characterized by turbulence, including several extreme shifts in mood and dynamics. Some of the transitions Friday were subtle — like the timpani heartbeat ushering in the lovely, gentle chorus for the woodwinds that makes up most of the second movement. Other moments, particularly the beginning of the third movement, felt like the flipping of a switch as color flooded into the orchestra.

But the highlight, unsurprisingly, was the thrilling timpani battle that dominates the symphony’s finale. Even for listeners unaware that principal timpanist George Brown and associate principal Eric Hopkins were playing tritones, the effect was intense and powerful. (The fact that Brown joined the orchestra before Hopkins was born also carried some symbolic weight in this musical incarnation of the life force.)

Stephen Hough was the soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Soloist Stephen Hough partnered with Bergmann and the orchestra in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s always a treat to hear Hough’s musical intelligence at work, and this grand concerto was an excellent vehicle, showing the British pianist’s skill at balancing force and delicacy. Every note registered clearly, no matter how heavy the orchestration behind it. And Hough summoned plenty of musical might whenever the score called for it.

Because music director Thierry Fischer is nearing the end of his contract and the names of potential replacements are closely guarded, most Salt Lake City music buffs assume that any conductor who appears in Abravanel Hall could be a candidate. Bergmann already holds conducting posts in Canada, Poland and Switzerland, but he seemed to win over the crowd and was effusive in acknowledging each section of the orchestra in the ovation that followed the Nielsen symphony.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall.

Leave a Comment