Salt Lake City and its surrounding environs are gifted with a raft of talented classical music ensembles and long-standing concert series. 2015 was, as in recent years, filled with an array of choices for memorable performances. Many, if not most, of my comments will be gushingly positive, but then again the talent on display locally — and imported — is exceptional. What follows is certainly not an exhaustive “best of” let alone a “top ten list,” but more a series of lightly-worn observations. Breezy might be the word. It is certainly not all-encompassing, and makes no such claims. Perhaps, if anything, it is one observer’s path of remembrance.
2015 saw the celebration of the Utah Symphony‘s 75th anniversary season, which included the ongoing Mahler Symphony Cycle (all nine of Gustav Mahler’s numbered symphonies in a two-season milieu) and the performance of all nine of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies late this last summer and late this last fall (the Ninth Symphony) in Abravanel Hall. Thierry Fischer led all of these performances. The interpretations of Mahler’s Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies were all powerful and compelling, especially the Third last February, which glistened and sparkled with details placed in service of the work’s almost endless array of emotional architecture. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony reigned gloriously in a fresh, newly-minted stream of tone colors and textures.
However, the musicians, the director, and a few guest conductors really defined excellence in some of the less heralded works. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra bubbled with feeling in extrovert fashion in early January, Alexander Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5 gained gossamer lyric drive guided by the United States-debut of the young Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada in May, Toru Takemitsu’s Spirit Garden danced vivaciously with something close to impressionistic vigor led by conductor Jun Märkl in October, Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ ocean buoyed with charming fervor in mid-November, and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 7 “Morning” wafted with strongly scented textures at the end of November.
Although the Utah Symphony is a superb ensemble and more or less the flagship for the local and state-wide classical music scene, other local orchestras or symphonies can provide just as compelling of performances. The Salt Lake Symphony‘s interpretation of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration on September 26 was gloriously organic and laced with just the right quantity of sentiment. Robert Baldwin conducted them unerringly. The Orchestra at Temple Square gave a performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 with Kevin Kenner as soloist on October 16-17 that rippled with warmth and almost effortless grace. Conductor Igor Gruppman was the partner in a lightly veiled ecstasy. The University of Utah School of Music’s largest top-of-the-line ensemble, the Utah Philharmonia, enlivened Mozart’s Divertimento in D major K.136 with supple colors and vibrant and vivacious phrasing on September 17. Robert Baldwin propelled the musicians onward.
The University of Utah’s Wind Ensemble offered some of the most consistently compelling performances overall among local orchestral-style ensembles, in a genre (wind band) that perhaps has the greatest number of interesting living American composers working today. The half-dozen or so concerts it played this year exhibited compelling emotions and artistry, usually led by conductor Scott Hagen, but at times by his graduate student conductors. If forced to select one performance for all-around dynamism and brilliance, I would choose that of Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music (with organ) on December 9. Scott Hagen of the School of Music conducted. There is also the Utah Wind Symphony, a quasi-professional ensemble founded by Mr. Hagen about four years ago. Thirteen of its members put on a stellar display of inviting musicianship when they gave a rare performance of Mozart’s Gran Partita (or Serenade in B-flat major K.361) in the intimate confines of the Summerhays Music Center on November 5.
Less solo instrumental performances are generally given locally, at least by the highest profile – international — of performers. Nevertheless, Salt Lake City in 2015 was still graced with exceptional performances by some of these individuals, as well as established local musicians. On the 22nd annual Eccles Organ Festival, the young American organist Christopher Houlihan dazzled a small Cathedral of the Madeleine audience on November 8 with a magnificent performance of French composer Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 4 in G minor, Op. 32 (1914). In September, on the first concert of that Festival, Cathedral Organist Gabriele Terrone mined the full emotional splendor of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42 No. 2 (1879). It is refreshing to hear these works played in their entirety, rather than just lone excerpted single movements.
On the ongoing (for about a decade now) University of Utah School of Music’s Sundays @ 7 Series in Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Vedrana Subotic’s ongoing multi-year traversal of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas was uniformly excellent. On October 11, her rendition of his sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 “The Hunt,” revealed a profound feel for the subtly scampering rhythmic vagaries of this piece. Jeffrey Price, also a professor and pianist at the School of Music, decorated his all-Scriabin solo piano recital on March 8 in the same series with the full panoply of tone colors that mystic of a composer surely desired.
On the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation’s Concert Series, Michael Gurt was radiantly compelling on February 13 in a dashingly understated traversal of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Ciclo brasileiro. And finally, Utah Classical Guitar provided the stage for guitarist Gohar Vardanyan at Vieve Gore Concert Hall to nimbly navigate her entire program on October 2 with effusive ease and eloquence, and no lack of rugged rhythmic propulsion.
On the local chamber music scene, the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City offered a number of riches, although no local ensembles, which is par for the course for the last several years. Foremost perhaps was the Czech Pavel Haas String Quartet, in its immaculate yet heartfelt rendering of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso” on October 13.
The summer Intermezzo Chamber Music Series gave one of the most intuitively verdant and emotionally draining performances of any of Franz Schubert’s compositions that I have ever heard, live or on a recording, in his Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat major, D. 898 on August 3. Pianist Vedrana Subotic, cellist John Eckstein, and violinist Hanah Stuart were truly astonishing — they sought the emotional heart of each movement, yet the whole was still far greater than the sum of each of the four movements.
The now over three-decades-old NOVA Chamber Music Series struck platinum with a performance of a reconstruction by Alan Boustead of the original chamber (nonet) version of Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 on the Subscription Series in March. The performance was both energetically genial and slyly probing. On the now almost two-year old Gallery Series (at the 15th Street Gallery) on October 18, American composer Michael Hersch’s forbidding Of Sorrow Born: Seven Elegies for unaccompanied violin (2014), were conveyed with decisively crystalline tone and a sweeping, sublimated sense of windswept and rain-drenched emotion by violinist Alexander Woods of Brigham Young University.
The Park City Autumn Classics Music Festival witnessed the Utah premiere of one of then-East German composer Otto Gerster’s two sonatas for viola and piano in a vivid and clear performance by violist Leslie Harlow and pianist Bryan Stanley at the Temple Har Shalom just outside of Park City on October 11. Fizzy and at times almost jazzy textures and lines seeped into the snuggly spacious acoustic
The Westminster Concert Series was the home of a sensuously iridescent performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Trio No. 1 in F major, Op. 18 on March 23 in Vieve Gore Concert Hall at Westminster College. Pianist Karlyn Bond, cellist Ann Lee, and violinist Claude Halter did the honors. This was augmented by the sinuously refined energy of violinist Alex Martin in an ardently atmospheric and riveting — almost grandiose — interpretation of Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Ms. Bond again honored the composer with a gritty, perfumed delicacy.
If forced to nominate one concert for “concert of the year,” I would choose the January 26 Westminster concert of all six of the solo violin sonatas of the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe. Violinists Yuki MacQueen, David Porter, and Alex Martin (all of the Utah Symphony) shaped their harmonic lines with feline intensity. Indeed, for me, Yuki MacQueen’s playing and interpretations of No. 3 and No. 4 would be my performances of the year — played from memory for good measure.
The University of Utah New Music Ensemble, on November 30, had oboist Luca Florin and pianist Stephen Arroyo give an ardently invigorating interpretation of Vladimir Ussachevsky’s Triskelion (1982). The Maurice Abravanel Distinguished Visiting Composer Series concert at the U of U Dumke Recital Hall on November 23 included a piece — Four Pieces Quasi Sonata (2006) — by this year’s honoree, Stephen Jaffe. Violist Lois Martin and pianist Stephen Gosling did the delectable honors.
The Salty Cricket Composers Collective (begun in 2006) mostly provides a venue for living local composers to showcase elements of their work, often but not exclusively in the genre of chamber music. This collective’s Living Masters Residency featured an out-of-towner, with one concert on February 28 devoted to at least one of his compositions, along with those of a few local composers. The interloper was the American composer Martin Boykan. The composer was present, and the artistry was relentless. Pianist Jason Hardink surfed the sounds of Boykan’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (2007) to immersive effect, and shifted into more smoothly mellifluous territory with local composer and U of U School of Music director Miguel Chuaqui’s Blues Claroand Blues Ronco from his Blues el Corazón (2009).
The apparently last-ever concert of the Emerging Quartets and Composers program at the Deer Valley Music Festival on July 28 in St. Mary’s Church in Park City showcased – in world premieres — some intensely colored and textured compositions for string quartet by the young composers Daniel Castellanos and Douglas Friedman, courtesy of the Semiosis and Denovo String Quartets, all young artists. Friedman’s The Pilgrim and Castellanos’s Propulsions endeared themselves to the appreciative audience with little sign of artifice. Such adventurism at the Festival will be missed.
As for choral performances, notable and memorable ones were given by the Utah Chamber Artists (Gerald Finzi’s In terra pax on December 7), the Salt Lake Choral Artists (the Russian Alexander Gretchaninov’s Passion Week of 1911 on April 12 as part of the Madeleine Festival), the U of U A Cappella Choir and Chamber Choir in all of their performances led by Barlow Bradford, and Utopia Early Music (a themed concert titled Poignant Pleasures: Music of the French Baroque on May 10 at the Cathedral Church of St. Marks). Last, but one with the other superb choral performances, the Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and Orchestra, along with the Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, rendered grief with humbling warmth in the Englishman Herbert Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi, led by Melanie Malinka on the St. Cecilia’s Day Concert of November 22.
Solo vocal recitals with piano accompaniment are given less frequently on the major classical music series in Salt Lake City. Some of the best such recitals are routinely given by graduate students at the School of Music at the University of Utah. Young soprano Michelle Dean’s recital on October 2 was touching, moving, and playful, especially in Barlow Bradford’s brief four-song cycle The Song of the Lark, with the composer at the piano. Those qualities were abundant as well in that least-known of the six French composers of Les Six, Louis Durey. Dean made her six song selections from his Le Bestiaire (1922) her own little shadow world, but the audience was graciously invited to slither inside it.
Opera and musical theatre saw memorable performances by Utah Opera (Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte in March), Utah Festival Opera (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying July-August in Logan), the U of U Lyric Opera Ensemble (Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon in a steampunk production in April), and Westminster College’s Opera Studio (Handel’s Semele in March). Indeed, this production of Semele (set in a southern American Gothic funeral parlor) in my opinion in some ways matched and exceeded the production of the same opera I saw at Seattle Opera in March.
To touch upon Utah Opera again, consistency was the watchword, with excellent productions (and first company productions) of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, the latter led by Thierry Fischer in his precise and prismatic Utah Opera conducting debut. However, for me the largely unheralded conductor Will Crutchfield’s conducting of Cosi was the conducting masterclass of the year – so invigorating yet so supple, so all-encompassing a shaping of lines, yet drawing forth phrasing and articulation of such point and effervescent sheen. Each of the five performances I attended was indelible, with a delightfully balanced cast of singers who could all act and sing most convincingly, on sets and with direction and costumes that insinuated listeners and viewers into the recesses of the drama.
Although this retrospective is really only about the 2015 classical music concert season in Salt Lake City and environs, two local concerts in the rock/pop genre caught my attention this year.
On the summer Twilight Concert Series at Pioneer Park, St. Vincent’s intimately epic, at times hard-edged cabaret rock/electronic fusion transfixed me for her entire concert on August 27. I attended two of her previously far less heralded performances in Salt Lake City, in 2014 at The Depot and in 2011 at the Urban Lounge. Her rendition of the song “Prince Johnny” off of her 2014 self-titled St. Vincent album this time easily serenaded the entire block — it was almost too self-contained when she shimmered through it at The Depot. She is one of the most talented and purely musical artists on the more popular music scene today. Her live performances lose none of their sprawling immediacy in an outside venue.
The set run through on that same series by the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, culled mostly from their five most acclaimed albums, lit the evening of July 23 with a dark amber melancholy swirl of honest emotions, full of lyrically rhythmic zest. The song “Returning” from their latest album, 2013’s Specter at the Feast, churned itself into my glinting haze of a memory. The band’s performance was almost a classic case of live being even better than the tracks on the studio albums.
So, it was a superb year in music in Salt Lake City and vicinity, and tomorrow we start 2016. I really don’t want to say that the best is yet to come, but we very well may have come to expect it.
Gregory Walz is a native of Bitburg, Germany and received a B.A. in History from the University of Utah. He has worked at the Utah Division of State History since 2004, in the joint Research Center with the Utah Division of State Archives in the historic Rio Grande depot. He enjoys music in almost all of its forms and genres.