After a well-received concert with the orchestra last year, conductor David Robertson returned to Abravanel Hall on Friday as the Utah Symphony’s fifth guest conductor in this season of unofficial auditions to succeed director Utah Symphony musical Thierry Fischer when his contract expires in 2023. With a program featuring Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and Brahms, the Southern California native has dramatically improved his chances and may have cemented his position as leader.
Unlike the almost large crowd at Handel’s last weekend performances Messiah, Abravanel Hall appeared to be less than half full. However, the small audience responded with enthusiasm, especially Korean violinist Inmo Yang, who made his Utah Symphony debut with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
From his first entry, Yang performed with an authoritative passion. Sporting long curly hair and wearing a long coat that swallowed up her light figure, Yang looked younger than her 26 years old. Yang’s musicality, charisma and technical prowess made it easy to imagine him having a stellar career.
He infused the contagious melody of the first movement with an energy that was both intensely personal and appealed to audiences with widely varying tones and dynamic levels. The technical magic of the cadence flowed naturally and seemed improvised in Yang’s hands. He sensitively played the soft-singing lullaby of the second movement, aided by Robertson’s precise rhythms, terraced dynamics, and swollen strings that rose to meet the soloist after each tutti.
The violinist’s communicative phrasing in the plaintive introduction to the third movement caught the audience’s attention, and it retained it throughout the dazzling and graceful main theme, which was made more charming by Robertson’s handling of the counter-melody in the low strings.
Yang’s encore was equally individual, offering Ernst Schliephake’s virtuoso arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Prelude in G minor, which showcased the violinist’s technical prowess.
As the soloist of the evening, Robertson showed off his own fan, opening the concert with Stravinsky Nightingale song, and ending with Brahms Symphony No. 3. Robertson’s direction was precise, passionate and communicative in both works, Robertson held the orchestra in his grip, allowing him to elicit a wide and diverse palette of colors and tones.
This was particularly evident in the Stravinsky. The material comes from The Nightingale, an opera that Stravinsky completed in Paris around the same time as his famous rioting ballet The Rite of Spring.
While Nightingale song is by turns cacophonic, enchanting and sardonic, parts of it were written years before the composer discovered his polytonal language, with a few passages that sound like a symphonic poem from the end of Romanticism. Moreover, much of it is written in a pentatonic scale, which Stravinsky intended to evoke the Chinese origins of the story, giving it a language of its own.
Robertson combined these disparate elements and influences into a lucid musical narrative, skillfully capturing every mood and style without sacrificing the unity of the piece. He made cohesive, accessible music from the polytonal opening passage, which the audience followed so closely that he burst into laughter when he landed on a sardonic trombone slide. Perhaps the most moving part of the piece was during the sad march section, where the lush and warm chords of the orchestra underpinned a poignant trumpet solo, soulfully performed by Principal Travis Peterson. Other notable passages from individual musicians include expressive violin passages by solo violin Madeleine Adkins and a brilliantly worded and engaging flute cadenza by Mercedes Smith.
By the time Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 3, his music was considered stilted and cerebral in some circles, especially those inhabited by Richard Wagner’s acolytes.
With his passionate rendition of Brahms’ Third Symphony, Robertson found fire in the room, and he and the orchestra poured their energy into his dynamic arc, slowly building themselves up to each powerful climax.
Robertson’s ability to accurately sculpt and formulate passages was most impressive, as were the deep and rich effusions he got on the strings. In the first movement, he gave a captivating, almost dancing cadence to the three-meter passages, while the second movement landed like a hymn.
Robertson probed the depths of the sad theme of the third movement, slowly building it into the strings and creating a contemplative atmosphere for the sublime horn passages. The aggressive energy of the fourth movement created a stark contrast, and Robertson gave it intense energy and Beethovenian rhythmic impetus.
By the end of the performance, Robertson’s head was covered in sweat as he acknowledged the audience’s standing ovations. After highlighting the different sections, the orchestra gave him a well-deserved foot applause.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Abravanel room. www.usuo.org.