Concert review: Utah Symphony honors JFK's inextinguishable spirit

Published November 22, 2013 10:42 pm
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It's three concerts in one at Abravanel Hall as the Utah Symphony marks two anniversaries and continues its Carl Nielsen symphony cycle.

Friday, of course, was the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The Utah Symphony played Stravinsky's "Elegy for JFK," written a couple of months after the tragedy, and Peter Lieberson's "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)," composed for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration.

Stravinsky's tribute is only a couple of minutes long, but striking in its simplicity. On Friday, the stage was darkened except for spotlights on the four performers — mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis and the orchestra's three clarinetists — and the American flag at the front of the stage. Images of Kennedy and the texts of W.H. Auden's haikuesque poems were projected on a screen above the stage.

Lieberson's elegy includes excerpts from Kennedy's speeches, read with appropriate gravitas by actor Edward Herrmann. The late president's words resonate as much as ever and the music is perfectly serviceable, but at 15 minutes, it's about twice as long as necessary. This round goes to Stravinsky.

Friday also marked a happier anniversary: the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth. Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer marked the occasion with one of Britten's best-known works — "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" — and one of his most obscure — "American Overture," originally titled "Occasional Overture" and promptly forgotten by the composer. The Utah Symphony performed both with gusto.

Finally, Fischer and the orchestra presented the fourth of Nielsen's six symphonies. This is the one the composer dubbed "The Inextinguishable," and it's a fitting tribute to the spirit of Kennedy. Written in four distinct sections that are played without pause, it goes from brashness to reflection and regret to determination and resolve. The Utah Symphony's performance became more involving as it unfolded and was capped by a thrilling timpani duel between George Brown and Eric Hopkins. —

Utah Symphony

Music of Britten, Stravinsky, Lieberson and Nielsen.

With • Conductor Thierry Fischer, mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis and narrator Edward Herrmann.

When • Reviewed Friday, Nov. 22; repeats Saturday, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

Running time • Two hours, including intermission.

Learn more • Nielsen expert Mogens Mogensen will chat about the music with Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan onstage at 7 p.m.

Tickets • $18-$55; visit bit.ly/177SB8u.

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