PROVO — The Utah Symphony may be 77 years old, but it proved last night in its first performance of 2018 that it still has new — and unconventional — tricks up its sleeve.
Although the program indicated otherwise, rather than diving into Haydn’s Symphony No. 8, the first half of the concert performed at Brigham Young University's de Jong Concert Hall kicked off with Dvorak’s frenetic Slavonic Dance No. 8 in G minor under the direction of the equally animated Thierry Fischer. Each instrument got a chance to sing and dance, at times, the notes so rapid and the playing so delicate it seemed the bows weren’t even touching the strings.
“Life is about contrast … surprises,” conductor Thierry Fischer explained to his audience following the piece. “So we thought tonight to start the year we would alternate Slavonic Dances with Haydn.”
This unique approach caught both seasoned concertgoers and amateurs alike by surprise as each movement in Haydn’s symphony became a self-contained piece rather than parts of a whole. But the approach did resolve one matter that often becomes an issue in orchestral performances: when to clap. Dispersing the symphony movements in between the frivolous Slavonic dances made it acceptable to clap after each piece — yes, classical music lovers, even the first and second movements.
Throughout the first movement of Haydn’s symphony, members of the Utah Symphony stayed effortlessly in sync, swaying and moving their bows to produce a flourish of notes — some accented, some played in a staccato rhythm and all played with gusto. But nobody displayed enthusiasm as extreme a level as conductor Fischer, whose baton flew from his fingers near the end of the piece and soared high in the air before landing in the middle of the cello section. Don’t worry, he got his baton back, but not without a few laughs from the audience, to which he responded with a slight shrug and knowing nod.
Fischer carried his expressive conducting into the lighthearted Slavonic Dance No. 3 in A-flat major, bending his knees, cupping his hands as if in prayer and nearly pleading with the violinists to prolong the lush melody and hold on to every note. The violins continued to shine with the third Slavonic dance of the night, reaching high notes that Fischer seemed to only push higher with his raised hands.
In conjunction with Fischer’s call for contrast, the concert continued to alternate between the lively Slavonic dances (performing six of the 16 dances) and movements from Haydn’s symphony. The third movement of the composer’s symphony highlighted an often-underestimated member of the orchestra — the bass — featuring intricate fingerwork and rich melodies that aren’t often heard on the deep instrument.
While it was admittedly a bit disconcerting to hear each movement out of context, the unorthodox approach did offer a fresh and exciting take on a traditional format, shaking up expectations and keeping members of the audience in continual anticipation.
The second half of the concert returned to the standard approach as world-class violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn took the stage in a shimmering purple-and-silver gown to deliver a riveting 40-minute performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53.
But Hahn shook things up in her own charming way. While it’s common for soloists to get carried away in the music to such a degree that they’re unaware of their surroundings, Hahn was very much present with her audience and fellow musicians, often nodding at the violinists, expressing enthusiasm and mouthing the rhythms in between her parts.
It didn’t take long for Hahn’s racing fingers to reach an astonishingly high note on the violin, but the next time she reached that note, her vigorous playing seemed to get the best of her as her bow slipped. For a beginning or even intermediate player, such a moment might have thrown the musician out of sorts for the rest of the evening. But this is Hilary Hahn. The violinist simply offered a wide, pleasant smile to her audience as if to say, “Stuff happens.”
Hahn continued to fly through the movements of Dvorak’s concerto with fast fingerwork, flawless intonation and a series of octaves and arpeggios that proved that in the grand scheme of things, one obvious mistake really doesn’t matter.
And it really doesn’t.
The renowned violinist dazzled her audience with her virtuosity, taking four curtain calls and even performing a solo encore piece that had the audience hanging on every note.
Hahn will perform with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall Jan. 5-6 at 7:30 p.m.