Matthew Zalkind will make his masterworks debut with the Utah Symphony this week, but it’s far from his first visit to the Abravanel Hall stage. That happened before he was born.
"Playing with this world-class orchestra — the group I grew up learning from, quite literally from the womb — is a real honor. It’s surreal for me," said the 27-year-old cellist, a son of two prominent Utah Symphony players. His mother, Roberta, is the orchestra’s associate principal violist; his father, Larry, is principal trombonist.
The Utah Symphony closes its season with Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.
With » Conductor Thierry Fischer and cellist Matthew Zalkind
When » Friday and Saturday, May 23-24, 8 p.m.
Where » Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $18-$55 ($5 more on performance day) at www.utahsymphony.org
Also » Finishing Touches open rehearsal Friday, 10 a.m.; $15.50
Zalkind first soloed with the Utah Symphony on a Salute to Youth concert in 2003, when he played a movement from the Dvorák Cello Concerto. His résumé since then includes a top-eight finish in the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, where he was the furthest-advancing American cellist; first prize in the 2012 Washington International Competition for Strings; two degrees from the Juilliard School and a doctorate from the University of Michigan; and membership in the Grammy Award-winning Harlem String Quartet.
This time, he will be featured in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Zalkind has fond memories of the piece; he performed it with the Juilliard Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall as winner of the prestigious music school’s concerto competition in 2009. Here’s how New York Times critic Vivien Schweitzer described his playing: "The cellist Matthew Zalkind … gave an elegant rendition of the work, playing with impressive refinement and eloquent phrasing. He illuminated the variations on the gracious melody with a singing tone and fine technique, and savored the good-natured dialogue with the orchestra."
Zalkind called the Rococo Variations "everything you expect out of a work by Tchaikovsky."
"What makes it particularly delightful is the juxtaposition of typical Rococo style with the openly Romantic style we really know as Tchaikovsky," he said. "It starts in very elegant, classical Rococo style, and as the variations progress, it becomes increasingly open, more Romantic and more emotive."
Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer said it was a recording of Zalkind playing the Rococo Variations that helped influence him to offer a concerto date to the young cellist, who’d come to his attention via the Tchaikovsky Competition. The conductor intends the piece, which he described as "pure fun," to balance the more challenging Nielsen Symphony No. 6.
The season-ending concert also marks the conclusion of Fischer’s Nielsen symphony cycle. "It’s extremely challenging to play and revelatory to listen to," he said of the Nielsen work, noting that it finds the composer taking more musical risks at the end of his life. Rachmaninoff’s popular Symphonic Dances will complete the program.
Fischer said he also found it fitting to close the season with "a family story."
"People in the audience will know [Zalkind] as a little boy," he said.
There are no trombones in the Rococo Variations score, so Larry Zalkind plans to slip into the auditorium to hear his son play. "He just puts everything he has into it, and people react," said the elder Zalkind, who still gets a "pinch me" tone in his voice when talking about Matthew collaborating with renowned pianists such as Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida.
Zalkind divides his time between solo projects such as the Utah Symphony dates and work with the Harlem Quartet, which he joined at the end of 2012. The quartet was founded in 2006 by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which encourages participation of young black and Latino performers in classical music. A large part of the Harlem Quartet’s mission is outreach to urban schools, which led the group to incorporate more jazz in its repertoire — which, in turn, led to a Grammy-winning collaboration with composer-pianist Chick Corea. That recording predates Zalkind’s membership in the quartet, but he will be on board for a tour of Japan with Corea next month.
Cellist Richard Aaron, Zalkind’s principal teacher during his doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, called Zalkind "an important cellist of his generation. … He has a unique way of connecting with the audience, a fantastic ability to really communicate musical ideas." Aaron said that Zalkind, who took over cellist Anne Francis Bayless’ classes at Utah State University for a semester while the latter was on maternity leave in 2012, also shows promise as a teacher. "He’s the whole kit and kaboodle. He’s so multifaceted."
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