Oliverson’s Barber is the highlight in Utah Symphony’s mixed season opener

Sat Sep 16, 2023 at 1:43 pm
By Rick Mortensen
Aubree Oliverson performed Barber’s Violin Concerto in the Utah Symphony’s season-opening concert Friday night at Abravanel Hall.

The Utah Symphony began its 2023-2024 season without a music director, and without one of the hallmarks of its recently departed music director: new and challenging music.  

Thierry Fischer’s 13-year tenure as music director, which ended last season, featured world and U.S. premieres, ample repertoire for the 21st century, and several seldom-performed pieces that challenged audiences’ ears, often alongside warhorses by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

By contrast, Friday’s season opener did not include a single piece written in the 21st Century or even the second half of the 20th. Instead, returning guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led the orchestra in a creditable concert of well-worn favorites, the highlight of which was a ravishing rendition of Barber’s Violin Concerto by soloist Aubree Oliverson.

The concert began with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) which got off to a slow start. While the melodies were prseented in a clear and lucid fashion, the first movement lacked passion and direction, and the orchestra failed to achieve its full sonic potential in the bigger moments. 

The ensuing Largo had more focus and clarity and featured some deeply affecting playing, not least the famous “Going Home” theme for English horn. The strings likewise captured the movement’s pathos and nostalgia with nuanced phrasing.  

Morlot and the orchestra found their interpretive footing in the Scherzo and Finale. With a Beethovenian rhythmic drive, the orchestra built quickly and convincingly to the third movement’s fatalistic main theme and presented a clear contrast in the playful, lilting development section. The fourth movement had an epic sweep as the various themes returned and intertwined in a glorious climax that brought the audience to its feet.

After intermission, the stage belonged to Oliverson.  A native of Orem, Utah, she made her orchestral debut at the age of 11 in the Utah Symphony’s Salute to Youth 2009 concert, She now studies at the Coburn Conservatory in Los Angeles while maintaining a busy concert schedule that includes orchestral music, chamber music, and solo concerts.

Wearing an elaborate, tangerine gown, she began by addressing the audience. Her brief remarks about the importance of classical music and the beauty of the Barber concerto felt unnecessary, but they showed a bit of her personality and her desire to connect with the audience, both of which came through in her playing.

Oliverson had a clear idea of how each phrase fit into the overall architecture of the piece, and how to bring her vision to life with her careful phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. Remarkably, she was also fully present and “in the moment,” spontaneously picking up and reacting to nuances in the orchestra.

The soloist commanded attention from the opening runs of the first movement, to which she lent a seamless grace and flawless technique. During the orchestra’s tutti passages, she closed her eyes and swayed with the music. When playing, she gave a distinct character to each of the movement’s themes, including Barber’s moody dissonant passages, which were spellbinding.

The second movement began with a mournful orchestral passage, rapturously phrased by Morlot and the musicians. Following the plaintive oboe solo, Oliverson’s entrance beautifully matched the mood, and she deftly pushed forward into the piece’s more intense, passages. Her tone was authoritative and matched her bold phrasing. The technically difficult Moto perpetuo finale showcased not only Oliverson’s technique but her musicality, as she and the orchestra built to a breathtaking finish.    

The enthusiastic applause brought Oliverson back out for an encore.  She chose “Por Una Cabeza,” a tango by Carlos Gardel, arranged for orchestra by John Williams (used in the film Scent of a Woman).  The piece allowed Oliverson to showcase her playful side, which she relished in a communicative rendition.

The concert concluded with an unremarkable rendition of Ravel’s Bolero. While Morlot did not do much of interest with the audience favorite, Ravel’s expert orchestration served as a reminder of the orchestra’s rich full sound and instilled a hope that a new music director will be appointed soon to help shape it.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Abravanel Hall. www.usuo.org

2 Responses to “Oliverson’s Barber is the highlight in Utah Symphony’s mixed season opener”

  1. Posted Sep 18, 2023 at 12:19 am by Stephen Oliverson

    Thank you for your thorough and insightful review. It is nice to see a performance like Aubree’s Barber be appreciated and understood. Your comments are meaningful and beneficial. Again, thanks!

  2. Posted Sep 18, 2023 at 4:55 pm by Brian Preece

    I attended the concert that was reviewed here and I thought it was incredible. And yes, Oliverson was the highlight in a very spectacular night of music. Though I have not attended the symphony in a couple of years, this performance made want to come back really soon. I have heard Oliverson many times and her talent never ceases to amaze me. When I think she can’t possibly get any better, she proves me wrong and takes her gift next level. If indeed this was a guest conductor, he did well and quite frankly, I think the Utah Symphony is world class.

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