Salt Lake City, UT
October 26, 2018
The Utah Symphony
Andrew Litton, conductor
Philippe Quint, violin
Bernstein – Three Dances from Fancy Free
Corigliano – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “The Red Violin”
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
There’s something a little otherworldly and disorienting about Salt Lake City, I’m tempted to say, especially if you aren’t Mormon or familiar with the ways of the LDS Church. It’s unusual to encounter a spotless downtown in any American city, of course, but you do wonder at times if Salt Lake is a Hollywood set designed to make one’s own sense of human imperfection uncomfortable. Utah, in general, is almost too beautiful to be real—but the city is curiously empty—even in the Bermuda shorts weather of late October. Immensely wide, perfectly laid-out avenues are nearly people free. (The “don’t walk” signs count down from 30). There are few homeless people visible, though sometimes they are the only citizens seemingly present, horizontal black marks visible on distant sidewalks. But raffish neighborhoods which spawn them, and the urban trouble that comes with them, are mysteriously absent downtown. Traffic is light. Nobody exceeds the speed limit or honks a horn. Nobody drives a German or European car. Almost all vehicles are SUVs. When you do see a pedestrian, it’s likely to be a pregnant young woman pushing a stroller, followed by a cortege of several children in ascending order of height, all blonde, all quiet and perfectly behaved. I’ve never seen so many small, eerily silent, humans in one place.
As you approach the central buildings of the city, you become aware of a powerful LDS influence and of the gigantic Eagle Gate across State Street, where a fourth generation black metal bird signals grim, watchful disapproval of anyone daring to pass. (You half suspect Edgar Allen Poe must have had something to do with it.) Temple Square is beautifully manicured, and you blink in disbelief at the sight of dozens of quiet young men in suits, sporting tie-clips, and ladylike young women, all wearing skirts below the knee. Is it 1968? You do wonder. Everyone is friendly on the surface, but seemingly wary of real conversation with outsiders. Docents are the exception and seem to hover everywhere. Rent a car in Utah with the name Kruger, as I did, and you set yourself up for an earnest lecture about “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas” from the Alamo attendant….s
I was surprised to learn from one of the docents that the cathedral-like Salt Lake Temple is off limits to the public and is not the building where the Tabernacle Choir sings. But it looks good in pictures. Every recording made by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir seems to feature its spires. The actual Tabernacle is a rather flat, egg-shaped building of no special beauty (it looks like a chocolate in a Whitman sampler) until one goes inside and discovers a fine acoustic and a serene Victorian atmosphere.
These days the Utah Symphony doesn’t usually perform at the Tabernacle. The orchestra occupies Abravanel Hall across the street. The building, named for the orchestra’s long-time Music Director, Maurice Abravanel, screams “1979” with its architecture and crystal “plastic-raindrop” chandeliers, but has a fine acoustic and the classic tried and true shoebox concert hall dimensions. Cyril Harris designed it, and one could blink and imagine at times being inside the Kennedy Center. Unfortunately, the lobby features an unimaginably hideous pink sculpture by Chihuly named “The Olympic Tower.” It looks like a thirty-foot tower composed of wriggling worms, the kind that get into your brain and replace your tongue in horror movies. If that puts you off, the only recourse is Coca Cola or God. The Utah Symphony does not serve alcohol.
Fortunately, the orchestra does serve music—and music of potent proof. Andrew Litton has performed lots of Bernstein in his day, and is a New Yorker to boot. With those credentials, it’s no surprise he captured a perfect Broadway sashay and the special Bernstein spark. And like the old cliche about heavy people, Litton was light on his feet on the dance floor, so to speak, and an engaging, fun presence on the podium.
John Corigliano is one of the few contemporary composers modern audiences enjoy without too much difficulty. He makes use of an airy sonic palette, produces tonal harmonies and has managed to structure his film music for The Red Violin into a cogent violin concerto. It features a cyclic, lurching theme that integrates it, as if composed of gears and ratchets. It’s not beautiful, but it works. Composers are running out of original melodies, so it’s an impressive trick that Corigliano can find so much lyricism in the very highest reaches of the violin range, where he manages to reach the human heart. Here is where one’s jaw simply dropped at the perfect intonation of Philippe Quint, who must surely be one of the most accurate violin virtuosos I have ever heard—and one of the most untiring. It’s not enough that the concerto begins with an impossibly difficult chaconne. Quint played another as his encore. This handsome Russian/American will go far.
The evening finished with a wonderfully lyrical take on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a fraction slower and more rounded in the first movement than usual, less thumpingly bombastic in the finale, but powerful from below, with expansive timpani and a real sense of drama. The house went wild. There was nothing reticent about the audience’s excitement. The Utah Symphony is a fine orchestra. And Tchaikovsky makes his mark.
As I passed out into the street, though, I confess I looked over my shoulder at the wriggly Chihuly sculpture and wondered what it was doing. Later, at the hotel, I checked my tongue. Still only an inch and a half long and motionless! Whew….