Next weekend's concert marks a milestone for Utah Symphony Associate Conductor Scott O'Neil. After four years with the symphony, O'Neil will make his debut with the Masterworks series in a concert that features works by Mozart, Poulenc, Barber and Moran.
"Up until now, I've performed on every series that the symphony offers," O'Neil said, "so I see it as a pretty logical progression. It's part of the training of young conductors."
Part of the training that young conductors get in the United States, O'Neil said, is to bring them on as assistant conductors. "What's difficult is that you never get to practice on your instrument. It's all imaginary until you get to the rehearsal, and then — guess what? The orchestra's not there for you to practice."
He said that what orchestras do, then, is have young assistant conductors perform education concerts, then pops concerts, chamber concerts, summer festivals and finally — the highest rung on the ladder — Masterworks-type concerts.
The series name is different, but O'Neil said that the repertoire is the type of music that he has been doing on other concerts. "This is actually what I was trained to do in conservatory. I'm finally coming full circle to do what I set out to do in the beginning, and now that it's happening, I plan to do it as much as possible."
The program isn't entirely at his discretion. O'Neil said that he had some input in the repertoire selection. And the piece that he's most excited about conducting is Barber's Symphony No. 1. "I'm a huge Barber fan," he said, adding that most Americans think of Copland and Bernstein as hallmark American composers but that many Europeans consider Barber to be the greatest American composer. "Frankly, I'm with (the Europeans)."
The work, he said, was written about the same time as the Adagio for Strings and is in a neo-romantic style. " I joke with people — although I'm not really joking — and tell them, 'If you don't know this piece, it's probably one of the best pieces you don't know.' "
O'Neil said he also likes the work because he can identify with it. "(Barber) was a young guy trying to make his way in a world that isn't necessarily friendly to young guys, and you can hear striving in the music."
Poulenc's "Stabat Mater," featuring the Utah Symphony Chorus and soprano Mara Bonde, will also be on the program. This performance will be an "extra-sensory symphony experience," with the inclusion of English subtitles for the text.
O'Neil feels that this piece is especially appropriate for Easter weekend as it deals with Mary's suffering at the time of Christ's crucifixion. "This is one of (Poulenc's) most probing, introspective, really deeply meaningful works, and I know he'd want us to hear it that way. I think when people see Poulenc, a lot of times they think of kind of a light, tongue-in-cheek, French style, because it's what he's most popular for."
But there's also a serious side to Poulenc, according to O'Neil, as illustrated by a personal story that he heard Robert Shaw relate. The morning after he conducted a performance of Poulenc's "Gloria," Shaw went to Poulenc's hotel room, where the composer was shaving. Poulenc asked Shaw to wait while he finished, but while he was still shaving, the newspaper came. Poulenc retrieved the newspaper, began reading it, and emerged from the bathroom — still half-shaven, with tears running down his face. "Finally, they will take me seriously now," he said, grateful to have finally gotten credit for writing a serious, great piece. "This music is in that vein," said O'Neil.
In addition to the works by Poulenc and Barber, the program will also feature Mozart's Symphony No. 35, "Haffner," and Moran's "Points of Departure."
"('Points of Departure') is a very elegant 20th century dance," said O'Neil. "I enjoy presenting music to people — especially if they haven't heard it before. And one of the challenges that I have taken on, personally, is to find music to convince people that they like contemporary music. In as much as this is a composer that people haven't heard, I think I actually made a pretty safe choice as to something that I thought was a sure winner, that I believed very strongly that they would like.
"I've actually been in e-mail contact with the composer. He's a wonderful man, very sharp wit, and it shows in his piece."
If you go . . .
What: Utah Symphony
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.
How much: $16-$47
Phone: 355-2787 or 1-888-451-2787