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Utah Symphony brings audiences to their feet

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Some musical performances are so thrilling that the audience is compelled to stand and applaud almost before the final note is struck.

Even more memorable, however, is music met by appreciative silence — musical virtuosity that leaves the audience so captivated that it seems sacrilegious to clutter the fading final chords with the harsh sound of hand slapping against hand.

Both were on display last Friday evening as the Utah Symphony welcomed its new music director, Thierry Fischer, and guest violinist Hillary Hahn.

Maestro Fischer has a particular fondness for 20th-century Russian composers. This was obvious in his powerful conducting of Igor Stravinsky's short but appropriately titled "Fireworks" and in his joyful rendition of Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird."

"The Firebird" in particular, with its lush and exotic tones and its exhilarating climax, was one of those crowd-pleasing pieces that brought an appreciative full house to its feet.

The main course of the evening, however, was a Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Minor, known as one of the most technically challenging concertos for violin.

The soloist was master-artist Hillary Hahn. Hahn was one of those child prodigies who studied in the finest conservatories in her childhood (Peabody and Curtis), and since her early teens has soloed with the world's finest orchestras. She is now a Grammy-award winning recording artist.

At 30 years old, Hahn is very youthful in appearance, strikingly lithe with an ageless porcelain countenance. Standing against the backdrop of Fischer's new European staging of the symphony (cellos and basses to his left, violins spread across the entire stage), Hahn was in full command of the concerto.

Some soloists would have you notice their effortful mastery of the intricate and demanding music. Hahn instead had us riveted on the music itself, as she effortlessly surpassed the technical demands of the music and made it come alive.

Her bravura performance brought the audience to its feet almost before the music stopped. And Hahn was called back over-and-over until she reappeared with her violin for an encore.

For her encore Hahn shared a movement from a Bach partita. The partitas are not just technically demanding solo pieces —they are among the most deeply moving, plaintive, and mysterious pieces in the classical repertoire.

In a radio interview Hahn has said:

"Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it's clear to the listener without being pedantic — one can't fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way."

Hahn's encore was clarity and honesty itself. As she finished the partita — the haunting tones still vibrating throughout the hall — it was clear that the right and authentic response was to allow at least a moment of silence. Too soon, in my opinion, someone broke the spell with a clap and then we all rushed to applaud her artistry.

Great classical music rests upon impressive scaffolding. The elaborate organizational and physical effort that maintains and grows a world-class orchestra in a best-in-class symphony hall is evidence of our community's abiding commitment to the performing arts.

But there is another invisible scaffolding that is even more vital, for the flourishing of great music. That is the interior scaffold of human talent that is built, hour-upon-hour, day-after-day, in the brains and muscle memory of talented performers. Such talent is not born. It is constructed through the daily struggle of artists trying, often against great odds, to get it right. They forgo other opportunities so that they can listen to and learn from exacting critiques of what they do and then try again to improve where they have erred.

Tonight Abravanel Hall will again shine with young talent as the Deseret News sponsors this year's annual Salute to Youth. Nine of Utah's most accomplished young musicians, ages 11 to 18, will perform under the direction of Maestro Fischer to showcase their disciplined dedication to accomplishment and excellence.

The performing arts are among the greatest of human accomplishments — a tribute to our collective yearning for excellence and transcendence. How grateful I am to be able to benefit from the organizational, financial, and personal commitment to artistic accomplishment that characterizes our community.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: pedwards@desnews.com