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`Rach III' gives Howard, Philharmonia a chance to shine

In the movie "Shine," Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concert - or "Rach III" - is purported to have driven protagonist David Helfgott over the brink of madness. Well, we can rack one up for pianist Leslie Howard. The cruel difficulties of one of the toughest pieces in the concerto repertoire obviously held no terrors for him.

And rack one up for the young players of the University of Utah's Utah Philharmonia orchestra, too. They were with him every step of the way at Abravanel Hall Thurs-day night.Under the aristocratic hands of Howard, Rachmaninoff's Russian masterpiece was given an exciting, yet dignified, interpretation. The pianist resorted to no stagey histrionics but still found all of the pulse-racing emotion of this demanding work, and his young col-laborators supplied plenty of heat of their own.

Conductor of the ensemble, Robert Debbaut, showed the excellence of his conducting skills as he kept his large ensemble in tight synch with Howard's playing. As a conductor, he is both expressive and precise. The players, for their part, rose to the rather magical occasion of playing in a world-class hall with a world-class pianist and did themselves proud.

Student orchestras are obviously still learning, and this one has room for improvement in the areas of tone quality and intonation, but one prefers to applaud what they have already accomplished. The students play with precision and remarkable musical maturity. The fine string section especially played cohesively and with emotional fervor throughout an evening fraught with technical perils.

The concert opened with Rossini's little-known Overture to Robert Bruce. It's rather slight but entertaining. As one would expect, the work exhibits several dramatic changes of mood, calling at one moment for a menacing sound from the brass choir, and at another for wildly skittering strings. The orchestra articulated its performance beautifully and gave the impression of being well-rehearsed. One could wish for greater mellowness from the woodwinds and greater sense of melodic line in the detached note sections, but these are quibbles.

The big piece of the first half was Symphony No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saens, written when the French composer was 18. The young composer had quite obviously made Beethoven his hero, and the piece is derivative through-out in that regard, but it is a beautiful work and deserves to be heard more.

The strings achieved an attractive delicacy in the first movement, and the dynamic shading of the entire group was admirable. Exposed solos from some of the principal players were a bit lacking in confidence, but every note was there.

A flirtatious peasant dance in triple meter forms the second movement, and it was most charming. The slow movement, features a beautiful, drawn-out romantic melody that was played with considerable warmth, but the long slow lines taxed the abilities of the players to maintain intonation and tonal support. The fourth movement was epic-dramatic a la Beethoven and came off well.

The concert was dedicated to Amy Carver, a member of the orchestra who died in an accident.