Utah Symphony conjures nature in extremes with Arlene Sierra and Hilary Hahn

Sat Apr 09, 2022 at 1:56 pm
By Rick Mortensen
Hilary Hahn performed music of Ginastera and Sarasate with Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

With a pair of distinguished guests as guides, the Utah Symphony is on something of an extended hike through the wilds this weekend and next at Abravanel Hall. Friday’s concert saw the U.S. premiere of Nature Symphony by Composer in Association Arlene Sierra and two other distinct takes on the natural world. 

The program also featured violinist and Artist in Association Hilary Hahn on a trio of pieces, the last an encore that doubled as a surprise world premiere.

The concert began with an enchanting rendition of Debussy’s pastoral Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. As principal flutist Mercedes Smith played the haunting and mysterious opening bars, Maestro Thierry Fischer kept his arms at his side. Smith’s free tempo and subtle, deliberate phrasing fit well with Fischer’s meditative interpretation. 

He took the first orchestral passages at a leisurely pace, making the most of their pauses and creating space to appreciate Debussy’s full palette of orchestral color. The transparent texture Fischer achieved allowed him to highlight often overlooked parts of the whole: the low strings’ shimmering counterpoint to the flute; the inner voices in the horns when the strings take the melody. 

The playful passages had a sense of whimsy, while the more effusive sections were unabashedly rapturous, as Fischer and the orchestra animated Debussy’s vision of nature as dreamlike, magical and inviting. 

In stark contrast, the vision in Sierra’s 2017 work is of an indifferent, chaotic and often menacing nature. In November, during Sierra’s fall residency, the symphony performed another of her orchestral compositions, Aquilo. She has returned to oversee the BBC-commissioned Nature Symphony as well as next week’s world premiere of her Bird Symphony.

Through repeated motives and ostinati — layered on top of one another and providing a backdrop to irregular swoons and swells — Nature Symphony imitates the inevitable but chaotic processes of nature. Listening to it unfold provides a fascination similar to watching birds or insects and puzzling over their behavior.     

The first movement, “Mountain of Butterflies,” flutters frenetically and occasionally swoops without warning. Though atonal, the piece has a strong rhythmic drive and a captivating sense of motion, and it creates tension and resolution in the development of its three and four note melodic cells. Fischer’s sense of counterpoint and transparency served this movement well, as he highlighted each layer of counterpoint and gave the piece a sense of urgency. The brass and percussion were particularly effective rising menacingly above the rhythmic churn.

The second movement, “The Black Place,” is named after a desolate landscape painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. It is slow, ominous, atmospheric and dark. In the program notes, Sierra noted that O’Keeffe’s iconic location in New Mexico is now a fracking site, and existential dread permeates the piece. Melodic fragments repeat and evolve slowly over a sustained single note that ascends and descends one step, and occasionally splits into an unsettling minor second. Fischer and the orchestra captured the movement’s dark, contemplative mood and gave shape to the swells in the strings.     

The final movement, “Bee Rebellion,” is inspired by the phenomenon of hive collapse, where a colony’s worker bees will revolt and abandon their queen. Using oboes, bassoons, flutes and, in the end, all sections of the orchestra, Sierra evokes bees buzzing busily and somewhat angrily. On Friday, a motive consisting of four eighth notes ascending and descending a minor third ricocheted through the orchestra, as if signaling the rebellion that would eventually destroy the hive. As they did with “Butterfly Mountain,” Fischer and the orchestra mastered the frenetic energy of “Bee Rebellion” and highlighted the many interlocking melodies. The movement — and apparently the hive — ended with an increasingly forceful repeated figure in the low brass.

While it’s clearly an atonal, modernist piece, the Nature Symphony’s rhythmic drive and polyphonic energy make it more accessible than another piece in Friday’s program: Alberto Ginastera’s daunting, serialist Violin Concerto.

Written after Ginastera had abandoned his Argentine nationalist style for serialism, the concerto is not concerned with nature and it’s very difficult to play. The first movement, “Cadenza e Studi”, begins with a strident, five-minute long cadenza with very few tunes or recognizable patterns and plenty of difficult intervals and chords. But soloist Hahn gave the movement musical structure with decisive playing, and the orchestral backdrop was crisp and solid, with the low brass and timpani creating a fierce backdrop.

Hahn and the orchestra brought audible passion and longing to the lyrical second movement, “Adagio per 22 solisti.” With a pleading, authoritative tone, Hahn carefully phrased the inscrutable melodic lines, while Fischer took advantage of the movement’s sparse orchestration to create exposed moments of profound intimacy.

The third movement, “Scherzo pianissimo e Perpetuum mobile,” showcased percussion: rattles, bongos, wood and sandpaper blocks, marimba, xylophone and timpani. At times percussion was the violin’s only accompaniment. Hahn played the virtuosic fast passages with furious energy, building to climactic finish that brought the audience to its feet with whoops and shouts of “brava.” Hahn has a large, devoted fan base that, thanks in large part to her YouTube channel, skews younger than a lot of classical music fandom. Introducing the teenagers and young adults in the audience to serialism was a gamble that appeared to have paid off.

If the Ginastera was a dinner of unfamiliar foods, Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen — a setting of familiar melodies from the beloved opera — was a favorite dessert for both Hahn and the audience. Hahn’s panache, charisma and trademark “fat tone” were on full display as she bounced and danced along to the embellished Spanish melodies, which were gracefully accompanied and propelled forward by the orchestra.

As an encore, Hahn sprang a world premiere of yet another nature-themed piece: Barbara Assiginaak’s “Sphinx Moth” for solo violin, which Hahn said was commissioned by the Utah Symphony at Hahn’s request. A member of the Odawa First Nation tribe in Canada, Assiginaak wrote a poetic essay introducing the moth, the piece, and some thoughts on nature and ecology, which Hahn read from the stage. 

The piece itself was engaging, and Hahn played it with imaginative phrasing and musicality. In a consonant, cheerful language that appeared to be based on a scale other than major or minor, it evoked the way a moth flits and darts in irregular circles.                  

The program will be repeated 5:30 p.m. Saturday. usuo.org 

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