Guest artists create a storm in all-Russian program with Utah Symphony

Sat Oct 22, 2022 at 11:37 am
By Rick Mortensen
Andrew Staupe performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with David Danzmayr conducting the Utah Symphony. Photo: Seth Ian

With a stunning all-Russian concert, the Utah Symphony welcomed the first guest conductor of its 2022-2023 season. 

Austrian-born conductor David Danzmayr, currently in his second season as music director of the Oregon Symphony, put his distinctive stamp on the orchestra, creating a spellbinding sound in his rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

And pianist Andrew Staupe, who recently joined the University of Utah music faculty, turned in a unique and technically dazzling performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Both guest artists were returning to the Utah Symphony after making their debuts in past seasons—Danzmayr during the pandemic-challenged 2020-2021 season— and this weekend’s concert should earn both another return engagement.

The concert began with Mussorgsky’s gentle, atmospheric Prelude to Khovanshchina, depicting dawn breaking over a small town at the beginning of the composer’s unfinished opera. 

The five-minute vignette was the perfect lead-in to the Prokofiev, which, after a somewhat bucolic beginning, explodes with a frenetic energy into the piano’s electrifying entrance. Prokofiev was living in the U.S. when he wrote it in 1922, and the piece appears to be influenced by the busy cityscapes that also inspired Gershwin during the same period. The harmonies have hints of jazz, as Prokofiev was experimenting with different scales, and the composer’s flirtation with Italian futurism is reflected in the mechanistic runs and scalar passages.

Throughout these passages, Staupe’s touch was appropriately marcato, giving each note a percussive presence without being heavy or bombastic. Even in the most mechanistic passages, his phrasing was communicative and fresh, and he created a strong contrast in the slower, more contemplative interludes. 

The contrasts were particularly pronounced in the moody second movement, which features a dreamy development section where the piano trades phrases with the horn and clarinet. Here, Staupe’s phrasing was exquisite, the melodic line rising clearly above descending thirds. 

He and the orchestra captured the joy and humor of the third movement, giving the reeling sections an exaggerated lilt, soaring together through the rapturous passages, and building together through the furious and climactic ending.

After a thunderous standing ovation, Staupe’s encore was Respighi’s lyrical Notturno, which showcased his sensitivity and allowed him to employ an entirely different technique. Not a note was out of place in Staupe’s phrasing as the melancholy melody rose above a pensive ostinato. The piece was captivating in its hushed stillness and a respite from the high-intensity Prokofiev.

The Tchaikovsky begins severely and somewhat bleakly, with a mournful melody in the clarinet rising above thick chords in the low strings and winds. Danzmayr took his time with the opening passage, giving it the appropriate weight and allowing Tchaikovsky’s exquisite chord voicings to ring through the hall. 

Throughout the piece, Danzmayr created a clear, transparent sound in the orchestra, allowing the phrasing in each voice to come through. This clarity was accentuated by the orchestra’s flawless intonation and the strings’ nearly vibrato-less tone, which allowed them to focus on connecting each melodic idea.  The first movement’s mournfulness eventually gave way to swelling passion, and an intense climax driven by a full sound in the brass. 

In the second movement, the low strings created a gorgeous backdrop for a plaintive horn melody, beautifully phrased by principal Jessica Danz, with Danzmayr shaping the orchestra’s powerful sound adeptly.

He and the orchestra gave the third movement a lighter more playful quality, with swooping phrases and expressive solo lines, including a charming run by principal clarinet Tad Calcara. 

This set the stage for the triumphant final movement, where Danzmayr’s focus on achieving a clear, transparent sound allowed the audience to hear each line building to the climax, and they showed their appreciation with a standing ovation augmented with exultant cheers.

The program will be repeated 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Abravanel Hall.

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