Review: Guest conductor makes Utah Symphony the star

Published December 6, 2013 10:57 pm
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Who needs a soloist?

Roughly once a season, the Utah Symphony turns the spotlight on the musicians of the orchestra — who, it must be said, are playing considerably better than the Utah Jazz this season, and for a fraction of the admission price.

This weekend's program might not look terribly promising on paper: a tone poem by the relatively little-known Henri Dutilleux, a symphony by the not-exactly-fashionable Franz Schubert and one of the less-often-performed Tchaikovsky symphonies. Guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated Friday night that a good orchestra, working with the right conductor, shouldn't be underestimated.

Graf, who recently concluded a long term as music director of the Houston Symphony, seemed to have a strong connection with the Utah Symphony. Conducting with clear gestures in which no movement appeared to be wasted, he led the orchestra in a compelling performance of Dutilleux's "The Starry Night." The 20-minute tone poem was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's painting of the same name, and the playing by the various sections of the orchestra was as colorful and distinct as the brush strokes in the painting. The orchestration for this piece doesn't include violins or violas, and the nine cellists onstage took the opportunity to shine. Graf also brought out some lovely detail in the woodwinds.

The conductor gave the audience a mini-lecture during the longer-than-usual rearrangement of chairs and music stands between the Dutilleux and the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony. It's fairly common practice for a conductor to give brief program notes introducing a less-familiar work, but Graf's insightful comments likely enhanced many concertgoers' enjoyment of this well-known Schubert symphony as well. Graf argued that, contrary to its name, the piece is complete as it stands — and then he backed up his argument with an exceptionally fine performance. The Utah Symphony cellists played with exquisite lyricism in this music, so strikingly different from the piece that preceded it. Clarinetist Tad Calcara and oboist James Hall also distinguished themselves particularly well.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 — the Utah Symphony's third performance of the piece in 40 years. Graf demonstrated a superb sense of the symphony's overall architecture as well as the fine details, and he never let the dramatic line slacken. Many individual performances shone in this radiant, even life-affirming rendition. Among them were hornist Bruce Gifford, bassoonist Lori Wike, trumpeter Travis Peterson and timpanist Eric Hopkins. —

Utah Symphony

Music of Dutilleux, Schubert and Tchaikovsky.

With • Conductor Hans Graf.

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

When • Reviewed Friday, Dec. 6; repeats Saturday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m.

Running time • Two hours, 10 minutes, including intermission.

Tickets • $18-$55; arttix.org or bit.ly/17ID0dZ.

Learn more • Graf will discuss the music with Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan onstage at 7 p.m.

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