What kind of a Utah Symphony season was it? A season like all seasons, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there.
Or were you? Despite salutary box-office figures, up a bit over last year, one noticed a fair number of empty seats at most of this year's concerts, even those labeled "sold out." Except of course for the Entertainment Series (i.e., winter pops), which proved so popular that back-to-back editions of those have been announced for next season.That's one way in which the times have been altered. Another was last fall's musicians' strike, which may or may not have affected perceptions on the public's part but served notice on them and the board alike: Whatever this orchestra's funding problems, today's players will not settle for less, either with respect to where they have been or in terms of where they see themselves going.
As usual, season's close finds some of those players going elsewhere, including co-principal horn Jeffry Kirschen to Philadelphia and oboist O. Jerol Clark to non-musical pastures. At the same time longtime principal horn Don C. Peterson is likewise stepping down to fourth, giving that section a new look and presumably a new sound.
More visibly, associate conductor Christopher Wilkins is also moving on, to the music director's post in Colorado Springs. Although he will return for some of the concerts he was down for, that means next year will see the choosing of a replacement. Candidates reportedly include Michael Stern, son of Isaac, and two women with local ties, Madeline Schatz, currently director of orchestras at the University of Utah, and former Utahn Marin Alsop. Look for some of these to appear on next season's chamber programs.
I don't know anyone on the other side of the footlights who is happy to see Wilkins go. In the three years he has been here his exuberance and musicality have won him a following so loyal there are reportedly those who arrange their ticket purchases to include his concerts at the expense of music director Joseph Silverstein's - something the symphony office will not confirm.
Reactions among orchestra members are more varied. Many mirror the audience view. Others see Wilkins as a performer for whom style outweighs substance, overly glib with both the audience and the music he conducts. (Particularly resented were what many perceived as just so many run-throughs of Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" in preparation for the May 19-20 subscription concerts.)
As has been apparent the past couple of seasons, opinions on Silverstein are even more sharply divided. For a sizable contingent of the orchestra he remains something of a god, a font of musical truth whose substance is never in question, largely due to his background as a violinist. For almost as many, however, he is increasingly coming to be seen as an uninspiring leader whose lack of charisma is almost as discouraging as his predecessor Varujan Kojian's lack of depth. "We don't really ever do any glorious performances anymore," laments one longtime member of the orchestra, adding that, for all the attention to detail, more precise cues would not be amiss either.
So were there no illuminating performances this past season? Hardly. Among the soloists one thinks of Yefim Bronfman's and David Buechner's Rachmaninoff, whose Third Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini made for an impressive pair of musical bookends to '88-89. Likewise violinist Elmar Oliveira's and pianist Garrick Olhsson's Barber concertos, about as close to definitive as one is likely to hear. Nor was there much Pinchas Zukerman needed to apologize for, whether partnered by Silver-stein in Bach and Mozart or as soloist in the Bartok Second Violin Concerto.
Moving to the podium, guest conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann proved if anything even more impressive than his soloist, guitarist Christopher Parkening, especially in Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis" - a remarkably insightful performance. Conversely conductor/pianist Neal Stulberg was marginally outshone by his guest soloist, pianist Jeffrey Kahane, but certainly did not need to hang his head over his own contribution.
Nor did Kojian need to feel bad over his return appearance, thanks largely to his tautly dramatic if none-too-probing Bruckner Third. For the audience, though, I suspect the highlight was Gina Bachauer winner Xiang-dong Kong's Tchaikovsky concerto, a bit too unsubtle for my taste but certainly more agreeable than his Bachauer-winning Brahms D minor.
Other pianists who raised their stock over previous appearances included Jean-Bernard Pommier (ably partnered by conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith) and Alexander Peskanov (a white-hot Prokofiev Second).
And Silverstein himself?
Among his illuminating performances I would have to cite his Schumann "Spring" Symphony, his double duty in the Harbison Violin Concerto (as soloist, with the composer conducting) and Beethoven Fifth (as conductor), his Bernstein/Brahms pairing (with the Utah Chorale), on a slightly lower wick his Schubert Ninth and
Dvorak Seventh and, I suppose by definition, a well-intentioned
Britten/Wagner pairing that included the former's "Illuminations." And although many disagreed (especially in the orchestra), I would include his Mahler Second.
Not surprisingly, much of the discontent over the latter involved comparisons with Maurice Abravanel - ironic in view of the discontent he frequently inspired in this same orchestra. If that suggests nothing so much as an orchestra simply getting tired of its conductor, it's a virus that does not yet appear to have spread to the board room.
"I'm still boggled by his wealth of musical resources," one board member says. "He's also managed to walk the mine field of programming without getting blown up, trying to please the people who think anything post-Brahms is unlistenable vs. those who think if you don't program new works you're only operating a musty old museum."
Certainly the museum is not musty, even if some of the exhibits are becoming more and more predictable. But enough light is being shed, particularly in some unlikely corners, that one would think it worth a visit. In short, next season's "Don Juan," "Jupiter" Symphony, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and "Pictures at an Exhibition" may not blaze many new trails. But where else are you likely to hear concertos by Amy Beach, Clara Schumann and Joseph Schwantner (this last for guitar). And the soloist for that will definitely not be Chet Atkins.