by Gregory Walz
Utah Symphony, EOS: Goddess of the Dawn by Augusta Read Thomas, Ogden, Utah, Feb. 19, 2015. Concert review by Gregory Walz.
When a symphony orchestra performs a concert that includes a Beethoven concerto, a Prokofiev symphony, and a world premiere composition by a living American composer, the chances of the premiere being able to withstand any comparisons are remote. But remote does not imply impossible. And EOS: Goddess of the Dawn (A Ballet for Orchestra) complemented the other two works exceedingly well — it is engaging from the first chords to the last. Augusta Read Thomas, the living composer, has succeeded at an elemental level. And yes, the orchestra and conductor Thierry Fischer performed magnificently;
Is EOS a masterpiece? I doubt that it is, at least for the moment and on my first listen. But I do want to hear it again — it will be recorded live February 20-21 in Abravanel Hall for future commercial release. Indeed, what exactly makes a masterpiece in orchestral music — possibly distinctive and accessible melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and colors superbly integrated — “beauty” that is. In any case, there is almost always virtue in some sort of brevity, and the duration of orchestral compositions is no exception. EOS, at just over a quarter of an hour, creates vast vistas of orchestral colors, harmonies, and textures, precisely observed. Melodies are heard only in fragments, but who needs them when a composition is so well-constructed and spirited in its own domain.
Eos is a Titaness and goddess in Greek mythology. The six sections of the composition are subtitled Dawn, Daybright and Firebright, Shimmering, Dreams and Memories, Spring Rain, Golden Chariot, and Sunlight. Dawn, Shimmering, and especially Spring Rain (where Eos embraces Iris and bids the Hyades to bring spring rain) were the most compelling, but all attained a high level of craft in orchestration, and merged into each other with emotional honesty. EOS captures the pictorial scenes and conveys the many moods of this Titaness and goddess as she sails across the heavens and interacts with her inner circle. The effervescent orchestration and piquant harmonies were captivating. Each of the seven sections in EOS is more or less designed to be a tableau, as if in a ballet. Indeed, before the performance, Augusta said she could envisage the dancing and lighting for each one.
The concert took place under the auspices of the Ogden Symphony and Ballet Association, and was performed at Weber State University in Ogden. The acoustics are inviting and responsive for the audience in the Austad Auditorium at the Val A. Browning Center. I would expect the sounds of all three works to resound with more depth and warmth in Abravanel Hall.
Augusta Read Thomas, born in 1964, was a savvy choice for the commission of a new work by the Utah Symphony. She is American, but venerable French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez championed her compositions when she was resident composer at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1997-2006. Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony from 1991-2006, also conducted some of her compositions. EOS was composed in honor of Pierre Boulez, and is “Dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Thierry Fischer and each member of the Utah Symphony.” Augusta’s colorful sketch for EOS is quite charming and endearing; it can be viewed on her website.
Artistic Director Thierry Fischer has demonstrated an admirable commitment to programming and conducting compositions by modern and living composers. He tends to program and conduct orchestral works of these artists more frequently in Europe than here in Utah. In February 2012 we heard the world premiere of French composer Michael Jarrell’s cello concerto. This coming November we are scheduled to hear the world premiere of the young American composer Andrew Norman’s percussion concerto, and in December a world premiere by Nico Muhly, another youthful American composer.
Both of these upcoming compositions will be recorded for future commercial release, and they were both commissioned by the Utah Symphony. They are to be included with EOS on a forthcoming album. This commitment to living composers in the Symphony’s 75th anniversary year is a testament to the art of orchestral music: its composition, enjoyment, and survival as a compelling genre to display beauty in some of its myriad forms.
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, “Classical,” the first work on the concert program, is one of the shortest symphonies in the standard repertoire. At only about a quarter of an hour long, a composition such as this again reveals that brevity places no inhibition on creativity and expression. Thierry Fischer has only conducted a few works of Prokofiev since his tenure began in Utah, including a coruscating Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Alina Ibragimova in September 2012. Fischer’s enthusiasm for programming and performing the ongoing cycle of the Austro-Hungarian master Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies (Symphony No. 6 — of 104 — will be performed this November) melds in interesting ways with the interpretation of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony on display in Ogden.
Prokofiev patterned this symphony after those of Haydn, but of course with an updated sense of sound and the approval of his own already emerging style. Haydn’s symphonies often convey wit and humor – in this sense he possessed one of the most infrequently encountered of musical gifts. Prokofiev was also able to convey these emotions in an exhilarating manner. And Thierry Fischer and the orchestra found ways to say this in a still lively yet more understated way compared to most interpretations.
The first movement Allegro was never indulgent, never rushed — the harmonies were deftly explored. Articulation was pellucid yet gem-like, with a delightfully puckish bassoon played by the principal, Lori Wike. The second movement Larghetto, with a relaxed yet still flowing tempo, and lucid phrasing, featured harmonies freely caressed. The third movement’s Gavotte saw sharply etched articulation sliding seamlessly into the lyricism. An insouciant gleam in the harmonies of the finale’s Molto vivace ended what was a refreshing take on what is too often an adrenaline rush of tempos in the first and last movements. Overall, we were showered with a lithe and sumptuously integrated performance.
German composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s violin concerto, the only work on the second half of the concert, is one of the most performed violin concertos in the standard repertoire. The Utah Symphony last presented Masterworks concerts with this concerto on the program in September 2009. The guest conductor then was Matthias Bamert, another Swiss national, like Fischer.
The monumental first movement was lithe and propulsive. The elegant, supple luminosity of the second movement Adagio was rendered in a rustically enchanting and finely-spun fashion, while the far more playful final movement was deliciously carefree and unbuttoned. There was fervor mixed with wit, and Fischer and the orchestra matched Skride’s vitality all the way. The translucent colors of the brief horn calls in the final movement were like shards of mist shooting out of a little rainbow, and Skride’s rugged determination unspooled all of the lyricism inherent in the score.
Thierry Fischer and Baibe Skride seem to have an almost intuitive affinity for each other as performers. They have collaborated in Europe several times, and in performances with the Utah Symphony in three other concertos — the Brahms and Stravinsky included. Just last month they and the orchestra gave us two beautifully exhausting performances of Alban Berg’s violin concerto. For this symphony season Skride is billed as an “artist in residence,” which appears to be a flamboyant way of saying that she will perform two different concertos in two separate series of weekend concerts. But she is a superb violinist who produces a rich and supple tone, fearlessly and strikingly projected, and she appears to have found one of her ideal musical partners in Fischer.
The series of concerts this weekend in Ogden and Salt Lake City is one variant of ideal orchestra programming: a new composition by a living composer, an established masterpiece from the late Classical/early Romantic period, and an early twentieth-century work. When such compositions are imbued with style, passion, and ensemble precision in performance — as they were in Ogden — we can cross more easily from enjoyment to reverie and even ecstasy.
This may be a new golden age for the Utah Symphony. The quality of performances has become consistently exceptional from week to week, even under guest conductors, and has been at times most memorable. As of the last few years, any Utah Symphony concerts led by Thierry Fischer are worth attending. He is a commendably artistic music director who helps bring out the best from our talented musicians, and he has helped forge an artistic vision to guide us into a compelling future.
Tickets are still available for the Saturday performance at Abravanel Hall. You can purchase tickets at www.utahsymphony.org
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. One of his indelible memories: the Australian band The Church performing at Club Sound on March 20, 2004 for their 2003 album Forget Yourself.