Concert roundup: Alexander Korsantia for Bachauer, Red Desert Ensemble, NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Contrasts, Samba Fogo

Salt Lake City’s music calendar is filled regularly with concerts offering a superior level of musicianship that would be envied in any major U.S. urban cultural center. The Utah Review summarizes four concerts from the last four weeks as a sampler of what is available in the local community throughout the fall, winter and spring seasons.


A native of Tbilisi, Georgia, pianist Alexander Korsantia gave an exquisite recital of music by Chopin and Schubert earlier this month in the second of the 2019-2020 series of concerts presented by the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. Following in step from Hong Xu’s magnificent recital in October, Korsantia displayed a palette of many nuances to shape truly heroic music in an emotional range that alternated frequently between soulful transparency and pure dancing spirit.

Alexander Korsantia.

Among the works was Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, which includes one of the most familiar pieces from the solo piano literature – the Funeral March in the third movement. Korsantia’s tempo was a bravura choice of delicate intimacy, not too slow and ideal for setting the momentum that opens the door on the sensation of public mourning in Chopin’s unique expression of stoicism in the face of grief. With a tremendously familiar piece such as this movement (for example, played at President John F. Kennedy’s state funeral in 1963 and at Chopin’s burial in 1849), Korsantia elucidated a spectrum of intricate details that often are overlooked. He turned the table immediately in the final movement (moto perpetuo) but did not sacrifice detail for blurring speed. He never let the moment overwhelm his supreme control over shaping the architecture of Chopin’s masterpieces.

Closing out the all-Chopin first half, including six mazurkas, he cemented the effect with his performance of Polonaise-Fantasie in A-Flat Major, Op. 61, which the composer completed in 1846. This work amplified Korsantia’s gifts for crafting a multilayered portrait, juxtaposing the dignified grace of Chopin’s writing that sounds occasionally as if one is distracted by other thoughts far in the distance with the initially hesitant but lyrical character of the budding polonaise. Korsantia steered steadily the polonaise, as he expanded the boundaries of its heroic character, a signature dynamic of Chopin’s oeuvre. Korsantia brought the coda to the most appropriate close of this journey narrative, rightly honoring one of piano’s greatest composers.

Alexander Korsantia.

The second half encompassed Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, D. 894, as Korsantia reaffirmed the relaxed, reflective mood of much of the music before the intermission. Korsantia’s brilliance shimmered through every movement, especially in the supremely warm, optimistic rendering of the Andante movement. He left the audience on the sunniest of notes in the final Allegretto Rondo movement, which periodically suggests subtly the exuberant character of a Hungarian csárdás.

Korsantia is on a blistering pace for concerts around the world. His slate for the current season includes concerto appearances with orchestras in Boston, Akron, Xiamen, Israel, Stuttgart, New York City and Taipei.

Bachauer’s next public concerts (January 16-18) will include preliminary round performances of the 2020 competitors for the junior and the young artists piano competitions. Salt Lake City is the last of the five cities for the preliminary competition, following performances in Moscow, Hamburg, New York City and Shanghai. After the Salt Lake City performances (at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts), 48 quarterfinalists for the competition (juniors, ages 11-14; young artists, 15-18) will be selected to compete in Salt Lake City this coming June.

The next recital will take place March 13, as Changyong Shin, the 2018 Bachauer gold medalist, returns to Salt Lake City.

For tickets and more information, see the Bachauer website.


A most fortunate development in the Salt Lake music scene this season is the Red Desert ensemble’s residency at Westminster College. Last month, the ensemble’s duo of clarinetist Katie Porter and composer/percussionist Devin Maxwell dazzled with its well-established command of new and 20th century music that truly rebukes lapsing into conventional, predictable patterns.

Devin Maxwell.

An important anchor in their concert, suitably titled The Edge of Music, was Devin Maxwell’s performance of Fantasies of Downfall by Johannes Kreidler, which premiered in Darmstadt in 2016. Scored for vibraphone, audio and video playback, the work epitomizes a clarifying thread through the works Porter and Maxwell presented throughout the program.

Kreidler is challenging the conventions of popular culture, our sociopolitical thinking patterns and our incessant preoccupation with the inevitability of decline and downfall. Maxwell demonstrated the perfectly natural connections among the three elemental sources of the work. There are many repetitive details in each section. The video features falling objects, shoes falling onto Kreidler’s face and a bare foot, as some elements. The images coincide with the audio such as electronic tremolo, chromatic scale runs and distorted or tightly compressed sounds. Meanwhile, the musician sets off the vibraphone’s tremolo and other effects and improvises on command a variety of musical figures.

However, nothing is ever as random as it seems. The work has this marvelous integral structure, even as seemingly awkward moments are cues up to occur. Philosophically, it reminds of Luis Borges’ alternate taxonomy in his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (1942) or of Michel Foucault’s own quoting of Borges in The Order of Things (1966). Indeed, the best fantasies of the ‘downfall’ is to overcome and tear down the barriers between the familiar and the blue ocean territory that many 21st century composers have introduced in their music.

Porter and Maxwell are known in the musical community throughout the U.S. and elsewhere for their due diligence and artistic respect to performing music that breaches edges in ingenious, approachable ways. This was consistent in their performances of works by Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis, Tenney and Lucie Vítková.

An array of instruments and effects for Red Desert concert.

The second half was dedicated to three Cage works performed simultaneously, underscoring the philosophical foundations from the mid-20th century that have inspired the likes of Kreidler and his contemporaries that Red Desert has introduced to adventurous audiences, in Salt Lake City and elsewhere. The trio of Cage pieces were the first three parts of Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), 45’ for A Speaker (1954), in which the 45-minute text is printed in four columns to facilitate a rhythmic reading (both performed by Porter) and 27’10.554″ for a percussionist (1956), which was Cage’s last work in The Ten Thousand Things project (performed by Maxwell).

Red Desert’s residency at Westminster involves a year of workshops, concerts, conferences and educational activities. A spring 2020 concert will comprise all new works, as commissioned by Red Desert.


Attending a NOVA Chamber Music Series concert always uncovers fresh connections between the established canon and the repertoire newcomers for soloists and small ensembles. Three concerts into the subscription series for this season demonstrate just how smartly the Fry Street Quartet has established the through-line for this dynamic.

Therefore, the recent Contrasts concert made for an ideal season centerpiece, with works by Robert Schumann, Bela Bartók, Libby Larsen and Steve Roens, a composer from The University of Utah. Countermeasures, a compact world premiere by Roens, accomplished a lot for a five-minute work comprising four very short movements. Scored for a wind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon), Countermeasures is a gleaming example of jaunty musical haikus threaded together even as they sound disjunctive in spots. The bassoon emerges as the instrumentalist with the task of throwing down the gauntlet in the ensemble. This gem of a premiere was courtesy of the principals of Utah Symphony’s wind sections: Mercedes Smith (flute), James Hall (oboe), Tad Calcara (clarinet) and Lori Wike (bassoon).

Steve Roens.

Without an intermission, the concert raced at a good clip, opening with two exceptional solo performances: Erin Svoboba on Libby Larsen’s Dancing Solo for Clarinet (1994) and Andrew Staupe on Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Opus 16 (1838). Larsen wrote the solo as a commission for clarinetist Caroline Hartig and the work comprises four short movements marked respectively as shadows; eight to the bar; in ten slow circles and flat out. The ‘flat out’ movement is ‘flat out’ difficult and Svoboda sailed through it naturally in perfect form. NOVA audiences will hear another work by Larsen next spring, String Quartet No. 4 Emergence, which was commissioned for the Fry Street Quartet’s global sustainability initiative, The Crossroads Project.

Likewise, Staupe set down the virtuosic stakes from the fiendish get-go in Kreisleriana and never looked back through all eight movements. Staupe contrasts crystal clear whirlwind force with the elegant musical latticework that pops up in various spots throughout the work. Staupe’s rhythmic control was noteworthy, especially in the third movement, marked by a triple rhythmic pattern that sometimes is lost in interpretation.

Libby Larsen

As mentioned in The Utah Review preview of this concert, Bartók’s Contrasts (1938) was a trio commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman and was premiered by him along with violinist Joseph Szigeti and the composer on piano. There is no such thing as an easy Bartók piece and the composer certainly pushed the virtuoso mark as high as he could in setting this three-movement trio, which blends Hungarian folk music elements and jazz into an earthy, arresting mix. So successful was this trio instrumentation that many other composers followed suit, writing chamber pieces for violin, clarinet and piano (notably including Paul Schoenfield’s contribution in 1990, as commissioned by clarinetist David Shifrin).

The trio (Svoboda on clarinet, Alexander Woods on violin and Frank Weinstock on piano) closed the Contrasts deal with exceptional merit. The opening Verbunkos captured the bull’s blood character of the Magyar dance and its deliberate purpose (traditionally combining recruitment and drinking) while the moody switch in the slow movement came through beautifully in the hybrid fusion of Hungarian folk and jazz inflections. The closing movement marked the sebes (fast) section of the iconic Magyar couples dance mezőségi, which the trio delivered with the flourish that would make any true Hungarian exclaim, Ugorjunk!, or “let’s leap into and join the dance.”

NOVA’s next concert (Feb. 16) will be a major hallmark of the season, Fierce Grace, dedicated to celebrating the historic anniversaries in 2020 for the women’s suffrage movement and the first woman elected to Congress (Jeannette Rankin). For more information, see the NOVA website.


As Samba Fogo, Utah’s Brazilian dance and music ensemble, expands it artistic range, the company has branched out from its signature Carnaval and celebration repertoire to original interpretations, which honor spiritual and ethnic roots of Afro-Brazilian culture. The group is astute about responsible cultural appropriation, especially in representing the Orixá (o-ree-sha), which are nature spirits found in West African and African diasporic mythology. It is a cultural statement reminding just how the spiritual foundations have survived not just the colonial era of slave exploitation but also periods of stigmatization and suppression in contemporary Brazil.

Photo Credit: John Olshinski.

For its latest concert, Xiré, Samba Fogo celebrated the various spirits of Candomblé version of the mythology, featuring original music composed by George Edgar Brown, which blended classical elements with Afro-Brazilian rhythms and motifs. The dancers in 16 numbers, each representing an Orixá spirit, were accompanied by a string quintet, a standard vocal quartet and four drummers. Lorin Hansen, the company’s artistic director, led the dancers, who appeared in solos and smaller groups in several numbers. They included Camille Haroldsen, Clare Tobin Lence, Dawn Levingston, Elizabeth Noel Wetzel, Indigo Cook, Lorena Ponce de Leon, Mallory Howard, Missy Stone and Sara Caldiero.

Brown’s musical settings skillfully incorporated the complex syncopated drum rhythms with melodic lines that summoned each spirit and later sent them away. Instead of the customary drum line of other Samba Fogo shows, this concert’s instrumentation included four percussionists (Mason Aeschbacher, Ryan Metzger, Tyler Chen and Jade Avery) on atabaque hand drums, which traditionally are covered by animal skins. They used a mix of drums to produce layers of textures, ranging from the Rum, which produces a bass sound to the Le that produces a higher pitched tone.

As the drummers produced a consistent hypnotizing effect, the strings (Jordan Hess, Sarah Insalaco, Danae Snow, Kaitlin Findlay and Maeve Barnum) were effective anchors for the marvelous vocal quartet (Emily Nelson, Solanges Gomes, Dell Ragone and Brown). The score reflected the sentiments in Brazil as Candomblé music has inspired a spectrum of secularized versions and interpretations that welcome classical, jazz and even influences from samba and bossa nova. Brown’s musical hybrids solidly bridged the Western and non-Western roots and the result was a robust, earthy, muscular sound.   

Photo Credit: John Olshinski.

Many of the individual scenes ended with just the atabaque sounds remaining. The opening celebrated Exú, the messenger, with an incantation that approximated Catholic ritualism. The lyrics suggested the cultural fusion: “Exú, handsome, potent, you have much power/Playful, like an adolescent/Guardian of that which is most important/Your temperament changing in an instant.” Then, the next verse asks for the “Messenger of the gospel, Saint Anthony/Protector of matrimony/Help us find that which is lost/Report to our Lord our requests.” In each portrait, a corresponding Catholic saint was connected to an Orixá spirit.

The choreography nicely visualized the musical imagery suggested by Brown’s compositions for each Orixá deity. Some of the most memorable presentations were Obaluaiê, associated with healing from serious disease matched with Saint Roch; Oxumaré, the rainbow serpent matched with Saint Bartholomew; Iemanjá, the mother of all oceans associated with Our Lady of Navigators who protects those fish or sail the waters from danger, and Xangô, the protector and administrator of fair justice matched with the benevolent guidance of Saint Jerome.

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