Strings are the thing with Utah Symphony’s suburban program

Fri Jan 13, 2023 at 12:36 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
Benjamin Manis conduced the Utah Symphony strings Thursday night at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville. Photo: Ian Mower/Utah Symphony

The Utah Symphony took a downsized, all-strings program to the suburbs on Thursday night.  The occasion marked the orchestra’s first performance at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center, a 20-minute drive from its home base of Abravanel Hall. (The Taylorsville complex is the newest arts facility owned and operated by Salt Lake County.)

On the program were short suites by Florence Price, Benjamin Britten and John Rutter, along with Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. The repertoire was well-suited to the 400-seat venue, where a larger ensemble could easily overwhelm. The intimacy of the hall, combined with a drier acoustic than in Abravanel, left no place for errant notes to hide, but the 21-piece ensemble did not need one. New associate conductor Benjamin Manis, himself a cellist, led with precision and good humor.

Price’s Adoration opened the program with three minutes of warmth. Its lush romanticism brought to mind Edward Elgar, whose music the orchestra played last weekend, but the American composer also served up a harmonic surprise or two. 

Her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint followed. This well-constructed, inventive treatment of well-known tunes such as “Clementine” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with the viola section playing a more prominent role than usual. The hoedown flair of “Shortnin’ Bread” brought appreciative chuckles from the audience.

Transparency and delicacy characterized Manis’ reading of Britten’s Simple Symphony. Pizzicato passages really popped in the intimate venue, and the pianissimo opening of the “Playful Pizzicato” movement was magical. Only in the “Sentimental Saraband,” which calls for soaring swells of sound, did the acoustic environment feel like a bit of a hindrance.

Rutter is an undisputed legend in the choral world, so it was an unaccustomed treat to hear his purely instrumental writing in the Suite for Strings. The part writing and the traveling melodies in the sunny, songful “A-Roving” and the jaunty “Dashing Away,” in particular, recalled his choral music. The Rutter suite also offered the first real opportunity of the evening for solo voices to emerge, and violinist Kathryn Eberle shone with luminous tone and expressive phrasing. “O Waly, Waly” (a tune better-known to Americans as “The Water Is Wide”) also included a brief but sweet duet between Eberle and violist Yuan Qi.

The Bartók Divertimento, the evening’s major work, offered more harmonic and rhythmic spice. The work has the feel of a concerto grosso, with the section leaders—Eberle, Qi, violinist Evgenia Zharzhavskaya, cellist Walter Haman and bassist Corbin Johnston—frequently leaping out of the orchestral texture. Suspense and tension built to particularly cinematic effect in the second movement, highlighted by the stealthy entrance of the first violins following the expectant spiral set by the rest of the ensemble. Eberle stood out again with a zesty mini-cadenza in the finale.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m., Friday at St. Mary’s Church in Park City.

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