In a way there were not one but two intermissions on Friday evening's Utah Symphony concert.
The first came in the usual place, between the first and second halves of the program. The second came, more unexpectedly, when principal cellist Ryan Selberg strode offstage to replace a broken string between the first and second halves (i.e., between the second and third movements) of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." And was it my imagination, or did the performance begin to sound better at that point?Not that things hadn't sounded OK beforehand (including, for the most part, the cello). Certainly the low brass put out strongly as associate conductor Kirk Muspratt emphasized the depth, and the darkness, of this Rimskyfication of the "Arabian Nights."
But for all its power and sonority, there was in this retelling little of the elegance and imagination the score also cries out for. Thus amid the controlled surge of "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship," here taken deliberately, concertmaster's Ralph Matson's violin solos might have been a bit more seductive. (Conversely Konrad Nelson's harping in "The Tale of the Kalender Prince" found him at his most flamboyant.)
Yet that seduction was there in the third movement, "The Young Prince and the Young Princess," along with an atmospheric sheen not so apparent elsewhere. And although I wouldn't have minded a snappier entry to "The Festival at Baghdad," as Muspratt tightened the screw this built steadily to a near-fever pitch, with, to the orchestra's credit, articulation not suffering in the slightest. (Witness the rapid double-tonguing of the flute part.)
Earlier we had a look at another Oriental lady, by way of Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance," as well as another sample of Muspratt's ability to season his programs with shorter yet appealing contemporary works, in this case Stephen Paulus' Concertante for Orchestra, turned out just two years ago for the Atlanta Symphony.
An engaging piece, the Paulus came in for an energetic performance, from the rhythmic bounce of the opening to the more aggressively driven finale, which built up a nice head of steam. Between which came the soloists-and-strings dialogue of the meditative middle section, highlighted by Matson's plaintive fiddling.
"Medea's Meditation," by contrast, was almost too beautiful in sound, something that carried over to the "Dance of Vengeance," which nonetheless thrust home strongly. At least I think this piece should be a little more claustrophobic - she is, after all, preparing to slay her own children - but I cannot fault Muspratt's evocation of the Oriental atmosphere, or the orchestra's work in the serpentine wind solos.
The woman most concertgoers probably came away remembering, though, was principal horn Shelley Showers, who between the Paulus and the Barber occupied the hot seat in the first of Richard Strauss' two concertos for that instrument.
Written for his father, Franz, one of the finest horn players of his generation, it is not an easy work. But Showers faced up to its challenges with distinction, from the golden-toned opening fanfare - like the bulk of the concerto, strongly reminiscent of Weber - to the reflectively muted Andante. After which the concluding Allegro not only romped vigorously but boasted some surprisingly smooth legato playing.
In sum, slips as such were minor and the overall effect major enough to make one almost forget Beecham's observation that this was the instrument that would likely limit the appeal of televised concerts - to wit, "Who wants to see a player dumping spit from a horn?"
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Charles Mackerras' new Telarc CD joins the upper echelon of recorded "Scheherazades," a list dominated by Kondrashin (Philips), Haitink (Philips), Reiner (RCA) and Beecham (EMI) - for my money still the most magical of all.
As it happens EMI also takes top honors in the Strauss horn concertos, via the classic Dennis Brain recording - almost too free from strain - followed by the robust Hermann Baumann, on Philips. (I have not heard Vlatkovic, also on EMI.)