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Concert Review: Symphony on the (red) rocks

SPRINGDALE — On Tuesday, members of the Utah Symphony traveled more than 300 miles by bus — about one-fourth of the overall distance expected to be traveled during the group’s five-day journey across the Beehive State.

Dubbed the Great American Road Trip, the adventure, which extends from Aug. 29-Sept. 2, is taking the musicians to state parks and national monuments in Utah's rural areas, giving residents there the chance to enjoy symphonic music in a scenic setting.

But unlike most road trips, “Are we there yet?” was never a question on the tip of the tongue. In fact, audience enthusiasm seemed to only increase as the night went on, and the two-hour concert could have easily been prolonged.

The symphony’s performance kept audience members hanging on every note — an especially impressive feat given the outdoor setting at the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater that was filled to capacity. Rather than creating distractions, the red rock backdrop of Zion National Park served as a lovely and fitting counterpart to the symphony’s repertoire of nature-themed works.

A majestic piece for a majestic setting, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” put the concert in full swing with its bold, brass instrumentation bouncing off the rocks and resonating throughout the venue.

The unique, rural setting of the concert allowed for a more diverse repertoire than a typical performance at a concert hall. For the program’s second number, soprano Abigail Rethwisch joined the symphony on the song “Spirit Woman Song” by Native American composer and flutist Brent Michael Davids, who was also in attendance Tuesday evening. The composer wrote the piece in 2001, but the Zions concert marked the first time the piece has been performed in a public venue, according to Davids. The song is a blend of operatic style with traditional Native American singing, and Rethwisch did a remarkable job combining the two distinct styles together in her performance.

Davids, who is from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation, later took the stage to perform a movement from his composition “Fluting Around.” The piece showcases the musical style of the traditional Native American wooden flute.

By far, the highlight of the first half was the symphony’s rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide Overture,” a frivolous and energetic piece that feels almost acrobatic. Although the piece garnered a large and enthusiastic response from the crowd, it was an enthusiasm that paled in comparison to the animated Thierry Fischer, whose flamboyant conducting had him doing everything but cartwheels off the podium.

As the evening progressed, the red rocks of Zion National Park faded until only a shadowy outline of the steep cliffs could be seen in the night sky. This provided the perfect backdrop for the second half of the program, which kicked off with Modest Mussorgsky’s eerie-sounding “Night on Bald Mountain.” The next few songs followed in similar theme, including one of composer Claude Debussy’s most well-known pieces, “Clair de Lune.”

As part of a piano suite, “Clair de Lune” was an unexpected piece for a full symphony to perform, but the ensemble did the light, romantic piece justice with its passionate rendition.

Rethwisch was joined by her husband, baritone Andrew Paulson in the program's second half, adding another layer of romance and expression to the concert. The soprano singer elicited great responses from the crowd with her piercing high notes, and Paulson was just as successful with his low voice and commanding stage presence. The natural chemistry between the pair made their performance of “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” especially charming.

Images of galloping horses and high-speed chases invaded the night as the symphony played Gioachino Rossini’s dynamic and ever familiar “William Tell Overture” bringing the audience to its feet and the concert to an enthusiastic close.

Although performances in outdoor settings can often lead to a number of distractions — passing cars and side conversations are two among many — it is worth noting the concert environment's impressive stillness. During those weighty silent gaps in the music, only the sound of crickets filled the air. And when the symphony's soaring tones took over once more, one could almost feel nature acquiescing, conceding to share the summer's night with these musical interlopers. It was an evening no one in attendance — crickets included — will soon forget.

Note: Other performances will take place at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Brian Head, Iron County; near Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments in Bluff, San Juan County; Goblin Valley State Park in Green River, Emery County; and at Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Uintah County. To view the schedule, visit my.usuo.org.