With a pair of distinguished guests serving as guides, the Utah Symphony is something of an extended trek through nature this weekend and next at Abravanel Hall. Friday’s concert saw the US premiere of Nature Symphony by Association composer Arlene Sierra and two other distinct views of the natural world.
The program also featured violinist and association artist Hilary Hahn on a trio of pieces, the last being an encore that doubled as a surprise world premiere.
The concert began with an enchanting interpretation of Debussy’s pastoral Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. As solo flautist Mercedes Smith played the haunting and mysterious opening bars, maestro Thierry Fischer kept his arms at his side. Smith’s free tempo and subtle, deliberate phrasing fit well with Fischer’s meditative interpretation.
He took the opening orchestral passages at a leisurely pace, making the most of their breaks and creating space to appreciate Debussy’s full orchestral color palette. The transparent texture Fischer achieved allowed him to highlight often overlooked parts of the whole: the shimmering counterpoint of the bass strings in the flute; the inner voices of the horns as the strings pick up the melody.
The playful passages had a sense of fantasy, while the more effusive sections were unabashedly ravishing, as Fischer and the orchestra enlivened Debussy’s vision of a dreamlike, magical and inviting nature.
In stark contrast, Sierra’s view of work in 2017 is indifferent, chaotic, and often threatening in nature. In November, during Sierra’s fall residency, the symphony performed another of his orchestral compositions, Aquilo. She returned to oversee the commission commissioned by the BBC Nature Symphony as well as the world premiere of her next week Symphony of birds.
Through repeated patterns and ostinati – layered on top of each other and providing a backdrop for irregular fading and swelling – Nature Symphony mimics the inevitable but chaotic processes of nature. Listening to it unfold provides a fascination similar to that of observing birds or insects and wondering about their behavior.
The first movement, “Mountain of Butterflies”, squirms frantically and occasionally dips without warning. Although atonal, the piece has a strong rhythmic impulse and a gripping sense of movement, and it creates tension and resolution in the development of its three- and four-note melodic cells. Fischer’s sense of counterpoint and transparency served this movement well, as it brought out every layer of counterpoint and gave the piece a sense of urgency. Brass and percussion were particularly effective rising menacingly above the rhythmic churn.
The second movement, ‘The Black Place’, takes its name from a desolate landscape painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s slow, eerie, atmospheric and dark. In the program notes, Sierra noted that O’Keeffe’s iconic location in New Mexico is now a fracking site, and existential dread permeates the play. Melodic fragments repeat and evolve slowly on a single sustained note that rises and falls a step, and sometimes splits into a disturbing minor second. Fischer and the orchestra captured the dark, contemplative mood of the movement and gave shape to the string bulges.
The final movement, “Bee Rebellion,” is inspired by the phenomenon of hive collapse, where worker bees in a colony revolt and abandon their queen. Using oboes, bassoons, flutes and, in the end, all sections of the orchestra, Sierra conjures up actively and somewhat angry buzzing bees. On Friday, a motif consisting of four rising and falling eighth notes by a minor third ricocheted through the orchestra, as if signaling the rebellion that would eventually destroy the hive. As they did with “Butterfly Mountain,” Fischer and the orchestra harnessed the frenetic energy of “Bee Rebellion” and brought out the many interwoven melodies. The movement – and apparently the hive – ended with an increasingly powerful repeated figure in the lower brass.
Although it is clearly an atonal and modernist piece, the Nature Symphonyit is the rhythmic dynamism and polyphonic energy make it more accessible than another piece on Friday’s program: the intimidating and serialist Violin Concerto by Alberto Ginastera.
Written after Ginastera abandoned his Argentine nationalist style for serialism, the concerto does not care about nature and is very difficult to play. The first movement, “Cadenza e Studi”, begins with a strident five-minute cadenza with very few recognizable melodies or patterns and lots of difficult intervals and chords. But soloist Hahn gave the movement musical structure with decisive play, and the orchestral backdrop was crisp and solid, with low brass and timpani setting a fierce backdrop.
Hahn and the orchestra brought audible passion and desire to the lyrical second movement, “Adagio per 22 solisti”. With a pleading and authoritative tone, Hahn carefully formulated the impenetrable melodic lines, while Fischer took advantage of the movement’s sparse orchestration to create exposed moments of deep intimacy.
The third movement, “Scherzo pianissimo e Perpetuum mobile”, gives pride of place to percussion: rattles, bongos, blocks of wood and sandpaper, marimba, xylophone and timpani. Sometimes the percussion was the only accompaniment of the violin. Hahn played the virtuosic fast passages with furious energy, building up a climactic finish that had the audience on their feet with screams and shouts of “brava.” Hahn has a large, dedicated fan base which, thanks in large part to his YouTube channel, is younger than many classical music fans. Introducing the teenagers and young adults in the public to serialism is a bet that seems to have paid off.
If the Ginastera was a dinner of unknown foods, Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet Carmen – a framework of familiar melodies from the beloved opera – was a favorite dessert for Hahn and audiences. Hahn’s panache, charisma and “big tone” were on full display as she bounced and danced to the embellished Spanish melodies, which were gracefully accompanied and propelled by the orchestra.
As an encore, Hahn debuted a world premiere of another nature-themed piece: Barbara Assiginaak’s “Sphinx Moth” for solo violin, which Hahn says was commissioned by the Israel Symphony Orchestra. Utah at Hahn’s request. A tribal member of the Odawa First Nation in Canada, Assiginaak wrote a poetic essay featuring the moth, the play, and some thoughts on nature and ecology, which Hahn read on stage.
The piece itself was engaging, and Hahn performed it with imaginative phrasing and musicality. In playful, consonant language that seemed based on a scale other than major or minor, it evoked the way a butterfly flies and flexes in irregular circles.
The program will be repeated at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. usuo.org