Grosvenor brings freshness, depth to Grieg in Utah Symphony debut

Sat Jan 08, 2022 at 12:27 pm
Benjamin Grosvenor performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Robert Trevino conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Once in a great while a musician will play an old warhorse with such nuance and freshness that one is reminded of all the reasons it became a concert mainstay. 

Such was the case with Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto Friday night with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall.  Under the baton of Robert Trevino, who, like Grosvenor, was making his Utah Symphony debut, the Grieg was part of an eclectic program that also featured Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and the Sinfonia No. 4 “Strands” by 20th century American composer George Walker.

A favorite of piano competitions and high school concerto nights, the Grieg concerto’s bravura runs and loud, climactic chords sometimes make performers and listeners overlook its subtle mood shifts and gorgeous melodic passages. Grosvenor highlighted the piece’s soulful qualities in a way that made its virtuosic climaxes even more powerful.

The concerto’s famous beginning, with its tonic and dominant chords cascading the length of the keyboard, was refreshingly understated, and it led organically into the first tutti, which Trevino and the orchestra handled with conscientious phrasing and articulation. This, in turn, built to the first movement’s wistful main theme, which showcased the British pianist’s refined musicality and his insight into the concerto’s subtle emotional shadings.

The first movement’s emotional peak was the cadenza, which Grosvenor performed like a stand-alone tragic aria in a free, spacious style with stark emotional contrasts.  He played the virtuosic trills and runs with comparable  panache.

Grosvenor’s expressive interpretation of the slow movement was aided by Trevino’s lovely phrasing in the strings. The movement had an ethereal quality that permeated even the playful scherzo passages. Grosvenor’s synergy with Trevino and the orchestra reached its apex in the triumphant finale, with an explosive finish that brought the audience to its feet. The pianist complied with an enchanting rendition of Ginastera’s “Dance of the Beautiful Maiden.”

While the Grieg may have been the concert’s highlight, it was bookended by strong performances of two other fascinating pieces. 

The concert began with Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4, nicknamed “Strands” for the way the composer weaved the disparate melodies together. A Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African-American to graduate from the Curtis Institute, Walker wrote the piece in response to a commission to commemorate his own 90th birthday.

The work showcases his mastery of thematic construction and orchestration. Prominently featuring the marimba and piano as well as the strings, it had the ominous feel of a film score for a Hitchcock movie, and Trevino’s interpretation was gripping and lucid.

Trevino also acquitted himself well in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka suite, mastering the quirky ballet’s ’many moods, from sardonic to tragic to jubilant. The piece tells the tragic story of a puppet in a doomed love triangle, and while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it encapsulates the emergence of Stravinsky’s wholly original voice as the last piece he wrote before his riot-inducing Rite of Spring. 

Dissonant orchestral chords in furious rhythms shift quickly to music-box-like passages punctuated by comic notes in the bass clarinet.  The orchestra expertly mastered these shifts in mood and color, and the piece also showcased individual principal musicians. Keyboardist Jason Hardink dazzled in the virtuosic piano passages, and flutist Mercedes Smith performed her solo passage with sensitivity and a beautiful tone.

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

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