The Utah Philharmonia is the largest orchestral ensemble of the University of Utah School of Music. Its most recent concert, given at Libby Gardner Concert Hall in Salt Lake City on February 11, presented the ensemble at one of its peaks. With an enthusiasm second to none, the School of Music’s concerto competition winners augmented the vibrancy and professionalism of the orchestra in repertoire— four pieces—that was and is charming, engaging, and tinged with a pinch of drama.
Austrian composer Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-99) led off the evening’s program with the richly scurrying overture to his operetta “Die Fledermaus,” one of his most popular pieces and one of the most frequently performed operettas. Claudia Restrepo was the graduate student conductor, and she led with a bracing start and a firm beat, eliciting string flourishes with an energetic sweep, along with a pulse of sustained vigor. Perhaps a little more flexibility at changes of tempo was warranted earlier on, but as the performance moved along these changes became smoother and more intuitive. This was a thoroughly enjoyable performance and interpretation, but one that was at times inconsistently inflected. The moment when the cellos are given the singing line was lovingly sustained, the chimes were struck evocatively, and the waltz section fizzed with appropriate finesse. At the close, the tempo became a little too inflexibly fast, and the dynamics of the final chord were brutally loud, but with textures still persuasively clear.
German virtuoso violinist and composer Ferdinand David (1810-73) became the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus (Orchestra) in Leipzig, Germany in 1835 and played under the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn; he also premiered Mendelssohn’s E minor violin concerto in 1842. He composed approximately 40 pieces, none of which are really performed with any frequency. One that should be performed more often is his Concertino for Bassoon, Op. 12, a captivating world of smoothly tumbling timbres and textures. Composed in 1839-40, it is a short, luxuriously tuneful and atmospheric work that hides some briefly deeper moments of introspection (its two movements last about 10 minutes).
Brent Mitchell Bodily was the bassoon soloist, and Bo Wu, another graduate student conductor, led the Utah Philharmonia in this performance. The textures at the start and in the first movement, an Andante, were lucid, with the soloist presenting a nicely rounded and warm tone that was dusky and dark too. The pulse of the bassoon soloist and the orchestra was contoured discreetly, with the balances between soloist and orchestra warmly serene. Bodily’s phrasing was flexible and rested on a bed of thoroughly sifted and shaped textures and colors courtesy of Bo Wu. The bassoon soloist’s playing harnessed wonderfully lush low notes and tidy lyrical lines. The second movement, a Presto agitato, had balances that were again pointedly maintained, with conductor Bo Wu wrapping the textures into and around the soloist lushly and playfully. The soloist’s interplay with the three double basses was fastidiously capricious and joyfully understated. Wu’s conducting never allowed the orchestra to loom over the soloist, gave a hint of glinting colors to the winds, and facilitated insouciant interplay between the strings and winds.
English-born composer Philip Lane (b. 1950) composed his “Three Spanish Dances” for solo oboe or clarinet and piano orchestra in 2001—so this is almost a contemporary piece of music. In three movements, the composition is a little longer in duration than the David Concertino, but the music evokes a similarly entrancing and intoxicating web of textures and colors, and is even more playful and carefree, even overtly sensual.
Matthew Mainella, yet another graduate student conductor, led the orchestra in an interpretation that was molded with care and spontaneity, one that was seconded by oboist Luca de la Florin and his superbly enticing phrasing. The first movement is a Malagueña, with serpentine rhythms, and one that ends with a wash of textures and colors piling into a deep horizon. Florin’s oboe line playfully and plangently projected into that of the harp. In the second movement, Habanera, Florin adopted an enchantingly light pulse, especially when playing together with the horns. His high notes were most colorful, and meshed well with the breadth given to the orchestral textures. The last movement is Tango, and witnessed pointed rhythms that merged with the sway and ripple of the textures. Luca de la Florin’s playing, with its diverting and cascading phrasing, enchanted itself and the orchestra. His attire added to the mood of the dances: he wore a plum-colored jacket with jet black pants and black sneakers with white laces.
French composer Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) compiled, arranged and orchestrated the “Chants d’Auvergne” (Songs from the Auvergne) from 1923-24 to 1930-55 in the local language, Occitan. This work for soprano and orchestra or piano, which is composed of folksongs from the region Canteloube, is his best-known and most-performed and recorded work. Soprano Shana Osterloh sung only five songs–those of the first series—from this much longer work (in five series, of five-eight songs each). Robert Baldwin, Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Utah School of Music, led the Philharmonia resolutely, and easily obtained a directly lucid sound.
In“La pastoura als camps,” the first song of the first series, Osterloh was sweetly evocative and playful, with sensuously daring phrasing and balances. So she caught the “Shepherdess in the Fields” with a dewy dazzle. In “Baïlèro,” deep splashes and inundations of creamy clarity and warmth lit the hall, and as the song progressed Osterloh’s voice became more embedded in the sparkling dance of textures. She maintained passion, precision and color at both loud and soft volumes, with some expansion to an attractive, timely spraying of a lighter vibrato. There was an exquisite balance among strings, piano, and vocalist. Maestro Baldwin played no small role in this.
“Trois bourrées” includes three songs. “L’aio de rotso” had a tangy clarinet moment, and Osterloh led with slinky drama and velvet in her soprano voice, its sinuous play with the winds and brasses teasing the textures deliciously. So “Spring Water” found its own rivulets. “Ound’onoren gorda ?” was attentive and perky, but at times lacked the last ounce of warmth. So “Where Shall we Go” slithered into its brusque bursts of tantalizing colors with just enough abandon. “Obal, din lou Limouzi” included another brief clarinet line that had a rugged grace to its tone and phrasing. Shana Osterloh matched and melded this to her own whims. So “Over in Limousin” truly felt like a sketch of a town free to dance to its own strands of frothy joy. In some of the most striking concert attire I have seen in some time, Osterloh wore a long creamy dark scarlet dress, with lace arms. Superb.
This was a thoroughly invigorating concert that exhibited the vibrantly varied programming that has almost become commonplace for Utah Philharmonia concerts. Those who are allergic to endless performances of the “greatest hits” of the standard orchestral repertoire should seek to attend one of its concerts—they are likely to depart with a sense of adventure replenished—like little wells, each with its own bucket.
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.