Many gifts of emotional highs in Utah Symphony’s season closer with music by Montgomery, Schönberg, Mozart, Copland

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There is an invigorating appeal in listening to music for string orchestra composed by a violinist whose instincts elicit a blast of colors, textures, lyricism and effects from an instrumental category with which she is familiar. The Utah Symphony’s performance of Jessie Montgomery’s Strum in the closing concert of a season with unique circumstances was the proper opener for a program, which produced numerous emotional highs, with Thierry Fischer as conductor.

Strum originated conceptually as a cello quintet then became a string quintet in 2006. Montgomery scored it a few years later for string quartet before expanding it into a work for string orchestra. The opening strumming pizzicato has a quaint quality in its suggestion of folk rock idioms but she quickly expands the work into a lively conversation between string sections that sound like Bartók in character. It’s effusive, ebullient and effervescent, all elements that came through in the symphony’s performance, which was a Utah premiere of the work.

Madeline Adkins, concertmaster. Photo Courtesy: Utah Symphony.

Montgomery’s creative impetus springs as much from her schedule as a music educator and performer as it does from embodying the role of composer. Strum reflects her relationship with The Sphinx Organization in Detroit, which in its nearly quarter century of existence has addressed the insufficient representation of young people of color in classical music. Montgomery is the resident composer for the organization’s professional ensemble, the Sphinx Virtuosi. She also received a grant for her 2015 debut album, which includes Strum as the title track. 

Earlier this spring, the Utah Symphony offered its first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony and this time featured his Chamber Symphony No. 2 in E Flat Minor, which he completed in 1940. The composer finally returned to completing the Second, which he had begun more than three decades earlier and had completed two movements at the time. Schönberg, who had moved to the U.S. in the 1930s, returned to the work, thanks to a commission from the New Friends of Music.

Fischer skillfully led the orchestra through a work defined by two different characters but yet both also pack dense triadic musical statements. The first movement is comparatively unadventurous compared to the sections that Schönberg composed for the 1940 version, particularly the fantastic epilogue in the second movement. Here, the composer is confirmed in the power of his selected thematic textures, and the orchestra’s performance brings the work with a masterfully controlled sense to a satisfying conclusion. 

Thierry Fischer. Photo Courtesy: Utah Symphony.

The remaining two works on the concert needed no elaboration in terms of historical context: Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize winning Appalachian Spring. The strings delivered fine textbook quality work on the four movements in Mozart’s music. It was graceful, light and happy. Truth be told: It would be more fun to hear Peter Schickele’s (a/k/a P. D. Q. Bach) parody Eine Kleine Nichtmusik (A Little Not Music), which includes brief clips from other music inserted into the original work’s four movements.

As for the Copland performance, the orchestra gave truly the most memorable closing notes for the season. In the work’s eighth and final section, which follows the most famous variation on the Shaker dance hymn Simple Gifts. Fischer meticulously steers the muted strings through the hushed chorale, which evokes the memories of the work’s opening music. In the original ballet, the newlyweds, after being welcomed by their neighbors, can finally enjoy the serene, secure surroundings of their new home. One could not imagine a more fitting close to this particular season for the Utah Symphony.

The concert will be repeated today at 7:30 p.m. in Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City. For ticket information, see here.

From August 10-14, as part of the Thrive125 celebration of the milestone anniversary of Utah’s statehood, the orchestra will play the Forever Mighty Tour of free outdoor concerts in Wellsville, Helper, Bryce Canyon, Kanab and Springdale. For more information, see the Utah Symphony website.

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