Hough premiere proves engaging but luminous Vaughan Williams takes the prize with Runnicles, Utah Symphony

Sat Jan 13, 2024 at 12:18 pm
Steven Hough performed the world premiere of his Piano Concerto with Donald Runnicles and the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall.

It was an auspicious evening at Abravanel Hall on Friday as two knights of the British Empire—Sir Stephen Hough and Sir Donald Runnicles—collaborated with the Utah Symphony on a highly anticipated world premiere.

The illustrious British pianist Hough, long a favorite in Salt Lake City, dazzled once again in his self-penned Piano Concerto, subtitled “The World of Yesterday.” The piece had its beginnings as a film score during pandemic lockdown. When the movie project didn’t pan out, Hough saw an opportunity to join the ranks of pianist-composers who wrote concertos as solo vehicles—which, he pointed out, was the norm until around the 1940s.

The twenty-minute, single-movement “World of Yesterday” is not programmatic, though vestiges of the movie’s plot—mysterious Austrian baroness commissions concerto from young American composer, with a possible Bluebeard twist—survive in its two principal themes. The first, which Hough described as “white keys, open skies,” is vaguely reminiscent of Aaron Copland; the second, a decadent waltz, nods to the high drama and rich orchestration of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Most impressive is Hough’s inventive development of the “open skies” theme, which flowers into an extended cadenza that anchors the first section of the work. The movie’s haughty baroness came to life in the lavish waltz variations in the second section, where Hough generously foregrounded various sections of the orchestra by turns, including some delightful moments for the xylophone. A frantic tarantella (perhaps a chase scene in the original screenplay?) brought the piece to an exhilarating close.

Donald Runnicles and Stephen Hough post-performance. Photo: Seth Ian Mower

A blockbuster performance from Hough is almost a given, and sure enough, his technical and expressive gifts were on full display Friday. The eminent Scottish conductor Runnicles, making an impressive local debut, led the orchestra in a supporting performance full of color and life. As an encore, Hough offered a poetic performance of the Northumbrian folk song “Blow the Wind Southerly.”

As exciting as it was to experience the premiere of such an engaging concerto, the evening’s emotional high point came after intermission with a sublime performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5.

Donald Runnicles conducted the Utah Symphony in music of Elgar, Hough and Vaughan Williams Friday night.

Though Vaughan Williams eschewed labels for this symphony, biographer Michael Kennedy dubbed it “the Symphony of the Celestial City”—presumably a nod to the composer’s then-in-progress opera of The Pilgrim’s Progress, from which much of the work’s thematic material derives. 

Friday’s performance under Runnicles’ baton was heavenly indeed, deeply nostalgic but also brimming with humanity and hope. Phrases, movements and overall architecture were thoughtfully shaped. Particularly memorable was the third movement, bookended by some exquisite playing from the woodwinds and an uplifting solo from concertmaster Madeline Adkins. The attentive Abravanel Hall audience sat in appreciative silence at each movement’s close, soaking in this healing musical balm.

The concert opened with a warm-hearted performance of Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne, a 15-minute slice of life in Edwardian London. Placid interludes were interspersed throughout the bright bustle, giving the impression of strolling through a garden or park before stepping out again onto the busy street.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. utahsymphony.org

One Response to “Hough premiere proves engaging but luminous Vaughan Williams takes the prize with Runnicles, Utah Symphony”

  1. Posted Jan 14, 2024 at 11:35 am by Moselle Eugen

    Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 is one of the great 5ths – and woefully under-represented in the major halls.

    Donald Runnicles and the orchestra were superb in these concerts. He is unlikely to be a candidate for the music director position, but it would be nice to see him return. Perhaps in Vaughan Williams’ 2nd or 3rd symphony?

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