From primal to sparkling: Utah Symphony concert highlights music by Jolivet, Beethoven

In 1944, the 22-year-old Jean-Pierre Rampal won the Conservatoire test by performing a virtuosic threnody piece for flute by André Jolivet. Throughout his career, Rampal would include in his legendary repertoire the 16 works for the flute, written by Jolivet, one of the elite French composers of the 20th century.

Again, the unique circumstances of the Utah Symphony’s programming in this transitional spring season of Abravanel Hall concerts that are mindful of cautious measures as the pandemic eases locally have produced yet another pleasant discovery.

Soloist Demarre McGill, Seattle Symphony’s principal flutist, and four Utah Symphony percussionists gave a splendid reading of Jolivet’s Suite en concert for flute and four percussionists, composed in 1965, in the orchestra’s Utah premiere of what is among the most interesting works in the flute repertoire.

McGill and ensemble evoked the full spectrum of primal senses that are naturally embodied in Jolivet’s writing and the purposeful selection of instrumentation. There is nothing more timeless nor ancient than the flute and percussion as building blocks for the human efforts of music. There is an unforced spirit of ritual in the piece which entrances the listener and McGill and company achieved the proper effect. Meanwhile, conductor Thierry Fischer assured the delicate balance allowing the full incantation-like sensation of the music to come forward.

Thierry Fischer, Demarre McGill. PhotoL Utah Symphony.

Jolivet, born in 1905, considered fellow country citizen Edgard Varèse his musical mentor but the young French composer also pursued his own vocabulary in composing, coming much closer, for example, to Hungarian Bela Bartók in aesthetic and artistic approach. Jolivet was fascinated by many musical traditions, particularly those of Asia, including Japan and Bali, as well as the African diaspora. If anything, he is closest perhaps to what we now characterize as the world music genre. This particular Jolivet work juxtaposes the naturally occurring primal rhythms with a sonic palette that exudes emotional counterpoints of utter serenity with ritualistic frenzy and meditative lyricism with ephemeral notes of whimsy.

The companion piece on the program was Beethoven’s First Symphony, yet another treat, given Fischer’s experiences with the Beethoven cycle of the nine symphonies. Fischer has conducted the cycle with the Ulster Orchestra and twice with the Utah Symphony. But, the Utah experiences differed. In the first, Fischer programmed the cycle over an entire season, presenting the symphonies in reverse order. In the second, coinciding with the Utah Symphony’s 75th anniversary, Fischer presented Beethoven’s first eight symphonies over 8 days and then several months later concluded with the ninth.

This latest performance of the First Symphony sparkled with the right mood of youthful joy and tease that springs from the piece’s compositional character. A relative latecomer to the form, Beethoven was 30 when the symphony received its 1800 premiere. Consider that Haydn composed his first symphony at the age of 27. Mozart had written all but five of his 41 symphonies by the age of 30. Of course, Beethoven studied for 14 months with Haydn during the early 1790s, a pedagogical relationship that broke when Haydn discovered that Beethoven also was studying compositional technique with two contemporaries. Haydn had insisted exclusivity as a teacher.

Indeed, the first symphony made clear just how much Beethoven had absorbed not only from Haydn but his other teachers. The symphony also has been one of the most intriguing examples in the discussion about how conductors interpret the markings of a Beethoven symphonic score. Two movements in particular engender the most discussion: the opening Adagio molto-Allegro con brio and the final. Depending upon the conductor, recordings of the First Symphony can range in time from 22 minutes to nearly 30 minutes. The liberties for specified tempo markings cover a broad range: differences of as much as 28 ticks on the metronome for the opening Adagio molto section and as much as 30 in the Allegro con brio.

Jolivet’s Suite en concert for flute and four percussionists. Photo: Utah Symphony.

Beethoven’s tempo indications broke from the conventions of his teachers, who generally abided by strict tempo markings. In Fischer’s case, the youthful vibrancy of the work shined in this performance. He also exuded the full capacity of warmth in the second movement, the Andante cantabile con moto, which I believe the best of the slow movements of Beethoven’s symphonies, save for the Eroica (No. 3).

The duration of this performance fell right in the middle of the range, as noted above. On the last occasion of conducting the Beethoven cycle, Fischer had written, “I had all the historical knowledge of the repertoire necessary and presented an intellectual approach, but now that I have much more experience to draw on I can present a more philosophical approach where I feel I am closer to embodying Beethoven’s spirit. Technically speaking, over the years I have added my own phrasing and bowing to the score, but overall I have now a more organic approach, and feel freer without limits.” For this concert, it was the appropriate playful end to a 58-minute concert that served satisfying portions of emotional connections.

The concert will be repeated today at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, see the Utah Symphony website.

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