Last evening's Utah Symphony concert was arguably the finest of this season. Joshua Bell lived up to his reputation as the star violinist of his generation in a passionate performance of Saint-Saens' Third Violin Concerto, and the symphony capped the occasion with a bravura performance of Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich.
At 30 years old Bell possesses plenty of All-American boyish charm melded with a nostalgic Old World musical sensibility. The rich dark tone he produces on his Stradivari violin is nothing short of intoxicating. Additionally, his command of the digital complexities of the violin is so complete that one forgets to notice supreme technical virtuosity because Bell's ability to communicate musically is greater still.The first and third movements of the Saint-Saens concerto were played with soulful abandon and with flawless execution. Still, it was Bell's rendition of the quiet second movement that those in attendance will have a hard time ever forgetting. The gentle call-and-response of the sinuous melody was so hopelessly beautiful on this occasion that a breathless hush fell over the hall. The difficult harmonic high notes floated effortlessly, and hearts were stolen. A long ovation followed the performance.
Bell's stellar performance was in good company. Rossini's Overture to Semiramide, which opened the concert, was highly entertaining and cleanly played. Conductor Bruce Hangen is possibly a might overstated in his gestures, but his musical intentions are always clear, and he elicited fine playing from the symphony throughout the concert.
The real symphonic showpiece was the fine performance of Shos-takovich's Symphony No. 5, which filled the second half of the concert and turned out to be a great treat. This modern Russian work is certainly one of the finest symphonies written in our century, and it was played to the hilt.
In this ironic piece Shostakovich managed to appease the repressive Soviet "culture police" while simultaneously thumbing his nose at them, and none of the biting satire of the work was lost in this performance.
The grotesque humor of the second movement came across brilliantly as the quirky signature melody was tossed from one soloist to another.
A brutal fusillade of brass and timpani led off a fourth movement, which alternated between adrenaline-pumping bravado and quiet tenderness. The playing was gutsy throughout, the sound big and bold. Among many fine solo turns, the standout performer was Bruce Gifford whose stratospheric horn solos were always on the money.