A splendid time to return to Abravanel Hall: Utah Symphony strings shine in concert with works by Sierra, Bartók, Mozart

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“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleepit is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them …” — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

If there was one quote to thread together the three composers — from Puerto Rico, Hungary and Austria — represented in the Utah Symphony’s latest concert, this from an 1891 edition explaining Mozart’s compositional approach comes closest.

Indeed, it is refreshing to step back into Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City for live music. This compact program, highlighting the Utah Symphony’s string sections, offered many splendid moments with music that resonates as sublime in our 21st century context and experiences. Guest conductor Domingo Hindoyan particularly shined in the slow movements in each of the three works.

Domingo Hindoyan conducting the Utah Symphony. Photo Credit: Utah Symphony.

The opener, a Utah premiere, was Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonietta, filled with lustrous textures and sound hues. This four-movement work for strings was premiered last month by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with Hindoyan conducting. Born in Puerto Rico, Sierra studied with György Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg, Germany. Like his Hungarian counterparts, Sierra fuses the organic sensations of the music one would hear in the streets, on radio and television as well as daily life with a contemporary sensibility in composition. To wit: Ligeti had earned his credentials as a cosmopolitan artist by studying all sorts of musical roots, not the least being Afro-Caribbean harmonic textures and rhythms. Sierra reciprocates accordingly, creating music that rises to the challenge of genuine musical diversity, a goal which has become urgent for performing arts organizations as they emerge from the pandemic to present live concerts.

Thus, the Sinfonietta embraces an egalitarian spirit. The palette Sierra paints with synthesizes instances of compact chromatic figures, pizzicato, harmonics, polyphony, competing rhythms, etc., to create a thoroughly pleasing painting of sound. For example, the strings shine in the second movement, juxtaposing moods of sinewy sensuality and late night introspection, which might be experienced during late nights outdoors or walking through the streets after a long day. Sierra, a prodigious composer, in 2017, received the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize, the highest honor given in Spain to a composer of Spanish or Latin American origin. He also was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The segue into Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings was ideal. Cast in three movements, this 1939 work was completed in Switzerland. Bartók was aware that soon he would have to leave Hungary as World War II unfolded. A year later, he moved to New York City, where he would spend the last five years of his life.

Photo Credit: Utah Symphony.

The Divertimento was composed originally for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. In fact, Bartók was staying at a chalet owned by the orchestra’s conductor (Paul Sacher). At the same time, he also completed his Sixth String Quartet, a work far different from the sunny, buoyant Divertimento, which he wrote in 15 days.

Hindoyan appears to be a marvelous interpreter of Bartók, exuding the ebullient punch of Hungarian-inspired dance rhythms from the strings. This sets up nicely numerous solo bits throughout the piece. And, as in Sierra’s Sinfonietta, both conductor and strings shine in the Divertimento’s slow movement (Adagio), as Hindoyan carefully crafts the rise and fall of emotions, where the lyricism builds to trademark Bartókian outbursts. The acoustic balance was pitched expertly.

Likewise, the orchestra and Hindoyan shine in the slow movement of Mozart’s Symphony 41, known as The Jupiter, the concert’s closing work. This is one of the most familiar pieces in the classical music canon so it’s challenging to see what a conductor and orchestra bring to its performance that stimulates listeners to think about the work in an expanded dimension.

In the 18th century, many philosophers, particularly of the Kantian bent, would not have categorized this Mozart symphony as sublime, a term that then was defined distinctly from the aesthetic power of beauty and pleasure. However, generations of critics and musicologists would use the famous fugue in the last movement as testament to Mozart’s capacity for achieving the sublime effect. Today, the definition of sublime encompasses a liberal spectrum of creative expression that listeners and viewers respond to for its beauty and pleasure.

Photo Credit: Utah Symphony.

In this performance, Hindoyan and the orchestra strived to finesse how we hear the competing textures in the fugue, representing the two key forces evident in the time of Mozart’s life — the appealing galant style of the Enlightenment and the ecclesiastically-driven intellectualism shaping one’s spiritual journey. In the performance, one could pinpoint the contrapuntal effects of weaving the stylistic opposites in Mozart’s writing. Similarly, Hindoyan sculpts the transcendent lyricism in the second movement, while never letting up the pedal on the continuous rhythmic drive of it. Those who heard the symphony near the time of its composition might have been overwhelmed by the work’s rhythmic richness to discern the competing elements at play. And, as the Utah Symphony’s performance elucidates effectively, we can appreciate why so many today characterize this work as sublime.

Hindoyan, with Armenian and Venezuelan roots, is on a tear with conducting appearances. He was recently appointed the next chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, starting in September 2021. He also is principal guest conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

One performance remains of this particular concert (today at 7:30 p.m.). The Utah Symphony continues a series of in-person concerts this month at Abravanel Hall. Patrons are required to wear masks and to follow the customary pandemic protocols. For more information, see the Utah Symphony website.

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