Old favorites well served by young artists with Utah Symphony

Sun Sep 24, 2023 at 11:53 am
Pianist Maria-Ange Nguci performed Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto with Eduardo Strausser conducting the Utah Symphony Saturday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Ian Mower

The 2023-24 season is a time of transition for the Utah Symphony as it seeks a replacement for departed music director Thierry Fischer. The orchestra is leaning heavily on proven crowd favorites to fill Abravanel Hall in the meantime. There won’t be a work by a living composer, or even a work written after World War II on a Masterworks concert until Nov. 17. (Unfortunately, the competing draw of FanX next door—or perhaps an aversion to the heavy downtown traffic associated with the massive pop-culture convention—took a bite out of attendance on Saturday.)

While the musical offerings this weekend were populist favorites, the soloist and conductor were young up-and-comers who partnered with the orchestra in solid performances of safe but satisfying repertoire: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

Marie-Ange Nguci, a twenty-five-year-old French-Albanian pianist, got top billing as soloist in the “Emperor.” Nguci is a promising artist who prioritizes finesse over fireworks. Her technique is clear and clean, with an especially ear-catching twinkle in the intricate passages of the concerto’s first movement. Another highlight was the transition into the finale, where Nguci cultivated an air of suspense as she tiptoed delicately toward the merry outburst that launches the  buoyant movement.

Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser kept the orchestra reined in sufficiently to let the soloist shine. The partnership was at its best in the lyrical second movement, where the relatively quick tempo favored by the conductor served to keep the action taut but not rushed.

By contrast, Strausser brought a more expansive tempo and full-bodied string sound to the concert opener, Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni. This rather Beethovenian reading, which played up the more portentous aspects of the score, ended up serving the dramatic music well.

Strausser brought plenty of depth and substance to the second half of the program, leading the orchestra in a stirring performance of Prokofiev’s life-affirming Symphony No. 5. Each movement of this symphony seems to bring a fresh struggle, and Strausser and the orchestra worked through them with a firm sense of momentum.

The sprightly scherzo, which opened frenetically and ramped up to a thrilling brass-driven accelerando, was particularly exciting. The principal clarinet gets most of the best tunes in this symphony and especially in the second movement, and Tad Calcara played them with insight and wit. Fellow woodwind principals Mercedes Smith (flute), Zachary Hammond (oboe), and Lori Wike (bassoon) were also in excellent form throughout with their beautifully phrased readings. The prominent piano part, executed superbly by Jason Hardink, offered a biting complement.

Rune Bergmann conducts the Utah Symphony October 20 and 21. The program includes Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Liszt’s Totentanz with piano soloist Joyce Yang. utahsymphony.org

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