Muñoz at his best in Beethoven with Utah Symphony

Sun Mar 27, 2022 at 2:34 pm
By Rick Mortensen
Tiro Muñoz conducted the Utah Symphony Saturday night at Abravanel Hall.

For many of this season’s Utah Symphony guest conductors, the concert serves as an informal audition to replace Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer when he leaves next year. If Tito Muñoz – whose regular job is the same post with the Phoenix Symphony – is interested, his transcendent interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) Saturday night should earn him a second look.

The Queens, New York native began the concert with a short, good-natured speech introducing himself and the first piece, Carlos Chávez’s 1937 orchestration of Buxtehude’s Chaconne E Minor, originally written for organ in the 1600s. The piece breathes fresh life into its 400-year-old source material with orchestral colors that highlight the passion behind Buxtehude’s polyphony.  At times, it imitates the overtones of a pipe organ with inventive instrumental pairings in octaves and unison; it also uses the timpani as a fully tonal bass instrument, enlisting all five available notes in the piece’s polyphonic counterpoint.

Muñoz’s affection for the piece was evident in his deft interpretation, which highlighted each layer of counterpoint and built to an exciting finish. Although he could have started his climb to the climax a little softer, to give the orchestra more room to grow, his control of the orchestra was impressive, manifesting itself in the care he gave to each phrase and the flourishes in his cut offs and articulation.

The passion of the Buxtehude was a warm-up for the concert’s centerpiece: violinist Augustin Hadelich’s fierce rendition of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Aside from its technical difficulty, the piece’s most distinguishing feature is its relentless emotional intensity, which Hadelich matched with severe attacks, precise articulation, and a plaintive tone that vibrated with passion. 

The first movement is a contest between soloist and orchestra in which they rarely play together, and the violinist handled his exposure with aplomb, giving each passage personality and color, including the cadenza, which was captivating.

The Adagio began sweetly, but it soon lost focus in the orchestra. Hadelich continued to emote, but the low chords in horns and bassoon which form the piece’s orchestral backdrop sounded muddy, and a few times out of tune. There were moments of stunning musicality, where Sibelius’s stark sensitivity came through, but the movement’s emotional journey was hard to follow.

Both orchestra and soloist regrouped in the energetic third movement, which features the piece’s greatest collaboration between soloist and orchestra and its most memorable tunes. Hadelich sawed through the folk-dance-like melody with relish and panache, urged on by the orchestra’s rhythmic drive, building gradually to a big finish that brought the audience to its feet. He then played his encore, a swinging rendition of Coleridge Taylor Perkinson’s Louisiana Blues Strut,with a delightful swagger.

The concert’s high point—and one of the high points of the entire season—was Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 6).  In the composer’s most programmatic work, Muñoz gave great care to the shape of each phrase as well as the piece’s overall architecture, creating a joyful, soulful interpretation that evoked the German countryside of Beethoven’s imagination.

Despite Muñoz’s brisk tempo for the first movement, the strings shimmered and the melodic line sang clearly and lucidly. He made playful use of the movement’s two-note and three-note phrases, shaping them into sweeping crescendos and charming passages of orchestral call and response.  

Muñoz’s care for the melodic line carried into the rapturous waltz of the second movement, where the melody in the winds and violins sang joyfully and serenely above carefully phrased ostinato passages in the low strings. In the succeeding movements, where a gentle country dance is interrupted by a thunderstorm, he allowed solo and duet passages by clarinetist Tad Calcara, flutist Mercedes Smith and oboist Zachary Hammond to freely showcase the musicality of the performers while fitting into the overall structure of the piece.  

Muñoz’s soulful interpretation of the final movement, “Shepherds’ song: cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm” tapped into the music’s transcendence and spiritual qualities without losing any of its charm and brought the audience to its feet for an ovation as emphatic as that Hadelich received after the Sibelius.    

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