In a season filled with new work that resonated with audiences, including three pieces by associate composer Arlene Sierra, Friday’s Utah Symphony program featuring only music by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky sounded decidedly retro.
While the orchestra “plays the hits”, most concerts this season have included a 20th or 21st piece of the century, such as the Ginastera serialist’s violin concerto, which Hilary Hahn performed earlier this month.
Besides the unadventurous repertoire, what sets this concert apart is the sound of the orchestra. Eivind Gullberg Jensen, who holds posts in Norway and the Netherlands, seemed to drown out the rich, full orchestral sound cultivated by music director Thierry Fischer. This thinning was most noticeable in the strings, which had a less shimmering tone. Jensen’s conducting style is also very different from Fischer’s, including grandiose gestures that have not always manifested themselves in the orchestra.
Still, Jensen’s innate musicianship was contagious during his Salt Lake City debut, and his polished, time-consuming renditions included some exquisite moments. The appreciative and near-capacity audience was younger than normal, possibly including current and former piano students to hear Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto performed by British pianist Steven Osborne. The concerto was sandwiched between Rachmaninoff Vocalize and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique”.
Despite the lack of string flicker, the orchestra’s rendition of the Vocalize was engaging. Jensen focused on the phrasing, which was exact and focused on the piece’s two-beat patterns and 1-2 bar swells. Taken as a whole, the piece was a perfect introduction to the concerto.
Osborne had surgical tape on at least one finger of his right hand, and the way they landed on a few notes suggested he may have been playing with a minor injury that put him below 100%.
Even with that, his performance was powerful and engaging. The most salient quality was how clearly and forcefully the melody of each phrase rose above the orchestra and complex piano accompaniment. However, he sometimes sacrificed musicality for clarity, and his touch, which always tended towards marcato, became harsh.
This was true in the first movement, where his introduction to the ravishing theme in E flat major lacked phrasing and form. However, he found his voice in the moody development section of the movement, to which he gave an authoritative passion.
Osborne’s tone served him well in the slow movement, making the melody more energetic and emphatic, and his judicious use of rubato in the solo passages heightened the piece’s dramatic sense. Osborne and the orchestra listened well, especially in a beautiful lyric section where he exchanged phrases with lead clarinetist Tad Calcara. Osborne and the orchestra captured the melancholy of the movement and the emotion built to its climax in the cadenza, which Osborne delivered with panache.
In the virtuoso third movement, Osborne’s bandaged fingers hampered his technique only slightly, and his interpretation came through clearly. While the sound of the strings remained thin and dry, Jensen’s phrasing captured the play’s overt sentimentality, which Osborne carried to the play’s thunderous climax, drawing an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.
As an encore, Osborne performed an improvisation on the opening theme from jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s live album “The Vienna Concert”. Slow and contemplative, with thick, colorful chords, the track showcased Osborne’s musicality and soul better than the Rachmaninoff and his performance was spellbinding.
Unfortunately, the spell was broken by a phone ringing in the lobby as he landed on the final cadence. It’s unclear if he would have continued improvising if he hadn’t been so rudely interrupted, but either way, it was an unwelcome intrusion.
The usual string shimmer was most missed in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, making the bassoon and low strings funereal overture somewhat anemic. However, the sunny second theme that quickly overtakes it was skillfully phrased and full of life, Jensen paying particular attention to articulation and melodic line. While the mood was intense, the climactic moments were held back by the orchestra’s lack of fullness and the movement seemed to lack direction.
The second movement – an “almost waltz” in 5/4 time – was lovely, with an engaging cadence aided by Jensen’s careful phrasing of the scalar patterns in the counterpoint. The third movement was contagious, an exultant march to which he gave a playful energy.
The orchestra sounded most like their usual selves in the final movement, a tragic tour de force that also showcased Jensen’s soul. Although Jensen continued to pack down the vibrato, the string phrasing was exquisite, and Jensen gave weight to each phrase by emphasizing the pauses between them. After the final cadence, he was hoping for a few moments of silence, but the audience burst in with a standing ovation before he signaled the play was over.
This program will be repeated at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. usuo.org