Utah Symphony, Fawzi Haimor impress in first collaboration

Sat Jan 28, 2023 at 3:14 pm
By Rick Mortensen
Fawzi Haimor conducted the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo courtesy of Fawzi Haimor

Guest conductor Fawzi Haimor began his Utah Symphony debut on Friday night at Abravanel Hall with Feuertrunken (“Fire drunk”), a 2017 work described by its composer, Joshua Cerdinia, as “a loud meditation (if one can meditate loudly) on joy.” 

This was an apt summary of the whole program, which also featured Stravinsky’s triumphal The Firebird Suite and Orff’s sensual secular oratorio Carmina Burana. While it was Carmina Burana that drew the near-capacity crowd and was the evening’s clear favorite, Haimor’s sense of drama and his particular gift for strong, emphatic finishes garnered standing ovations for all three works.

In general, Haimor delivered the climactic moments of each with authoritative polish and panache, but the connective tissue building to each climax could have used a bit more attention. In Feuertrunken, a primordial exultation filled with interesting sonorities and textures, Haimor and the orchestra seemed to plow through the beginning passages, hitting their marks but not doing much of interest with the phrasing and articulation. They finally hit their stride about a third of the way through and created several breathtakingly exciting moments.

Firebird unfolded similarly. The first two movements featured lovely flourishes in the strings and woodwinds, particularly in the contrapuntal interplay between the clarinets, flutes, and double-reed instruments. But on the whole, those opening movements were too subdued and lacking in direction. The third movement, “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei,” marked a comeback. It pulsated with energy and rhythmic drive as Haimor appeared to unleash the orchestra, particularly the strings, which sawed through the furious passages with ferocious abandon.

The orchestra’s hypnotic rendition of the “Berceuse” movement included some moments of exquisite musicality, particularly in the harp and bassoon. It showcased Haimor’s sensitivity and his ability to create a defined, transparent sound, and it built seamlessly to the euphoric Finale, which Haimor drove home with aplomb.

The orchestra’s performance of Carmina Burana featured three local choirs: the Utah Symphony chorus, the University of Utah Choirs – both under the direction of Barlow Bradford – and the Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, directed by Melanie Malinka. From the opening strains of “Oh Fortuna,” they performed as a single instrument with impeccable diction and articulation. They were also responsive to the phrasing and musical gestures from Haimor, who created a strong through line connecting the powerful opening to the moodier passages in the second and third movements.

The piece is divided into five main sections and 25 short movements, with contrasting moods, textures and configurations of soloists, choir, and musicians. Sung mostly in Latin (with a few passages in medievalGerman and French), it begins with an ode to fate, or “fortune”, then takes the audience through the rather primitive joys and sorrows of spring, drinking, sex and love. It ends, as it began, by praising Fortune.

If this journey has a guide, it is the baritone soloist, who enters in the fourth movement and plays different roles through end of the piece. Christopher Clayton, who sang the part with Ballet West last year, filled the role magnificently, performing without a score and fully committing to each of his roles physically and dramatically. (In most performances, the soloists stay on stage throughout the performance, but on Friday night, the Utah Symphony elected to have the soloists enter through the orchestra right stage-door when it was their turn to sing.)

For his first passage, “Omnia Sol temperat,” (“The Sun Warms Everything”)  Clayton sang the first stanza far stage right, the second center right and the third center left. He sang with a mellow, natural tone and varied dynamics, but it always felt like an incantation. During the most earthy of the five sections, “In the Tavern,” the mood shifted to more of a rousing aria, as Clayton sang “Burning Inside” with swashbuckling passion and “I Am the Abbot of Cockaigne” with a carnivalesque brio. Even in Latin, with no translations projected for the audience to see, the spectacle of the Abbott drunkenly boasting of his exploits was unmistakable in Clayton’s performance.

While Clayton garnered big laughs from his “Tavern” numbers — which also showcased the raw power and expressive force of the men in the choir — his finest moments were during the more tender and sensuous section, “In the Court of Love,” which he shared with soprano Ashley Fabian (who, in all three of this week’s performances, is filling for Liv Redpath, who is out due to illness).

Fabian ushered in the “Love” section by entering the stage slowly in a striking red gown as the orchestra played a wistful refrain in the flutes and strings,  punctuated by a unison fanfare from the Madeleine Choristers. Fabian delivered her first aria, “Cupid Flies Everywhere,” in a gorgeous, crystalline tone and shaped each phrase beautifully. Like Clayton, she sang without a score, which allowed her to fully commit to the piece with her gestures and posture.

Clayton directed his next aria, “Day, Night, and Everything,” at Fabian. The piece is a lonely lament that stays in the highest reaches of the baritone range, dipping  into the lower register only at the very end, when he requests a kiss. Clayton performed it with technical precision and dramatic flair, and Fabian reacted coquettishly, almost blushing. She then responded with an utterly sublime rendition of “A Girl Stood,” her high notes ringing sweetly and clearly throughout the hall. 

The next few arias marking the couple’s “coupling,” and the choir’s lusty celebration thereof, were among the high points of an epic work that is mostly remembered for the famous “O Fortuna” section that begins and ends it.

Rounding out the soloists was Jack Swanson, filling in this weekend as the tenor for Brian Stucki, who was also out with illness. Swanson, who just finished Daughter of the Regiment with Utah Opera last Sunday, did use a score, but to dramatic effect, clutching it fearfully to his chest as he walked on to the stage, portraying a swan who is somehow sentient as it is being roasted and eaten in the tavern. Swanson’s voice, which ably managed the high Cs in Regiment, went a whole step higher in Carmina Burana, yet he maintained his beautiful tone and timbre throughout, and played his short part well.

The concert repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at Abravanel Hall. www.usuo.org

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